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Whatcom child care tax proposal has broad support among health care, employers

Bellingham Herald - 10/26/2022

Oct. 23—Whatcom County voters are being asked to approve a property tax measure to fund child care, preschool programs to prepare children for kindergarten, help homeless youth and abused children, and provide mental health services for children and families.

It's called Proposition 5 on the Nov. 8 ballot, and it would charge property owners 19 cents for every $1,000 of assessed valuation, raising $8.2 million annually.

That means that the owner of a home assessed at $500,000 would pay $95 a year for the 10-year life of the levy.

To pass, it requires a simple majority of Whatcom County voters.

"We know that families are struggling, and we know that there is more that we can do," said Heather Flaherty, executive director of the Chuckanut Health Foundation and a member of the Children's Initiative Committee, in a presentation to the Whatcom County Council.

In a written report to the council, the Children's Initiative Committee said that 34% of all Whatcom County households spend more than 30% of their income on housing, including the 51% of households who rent.

Some two-thirds of families lack access to child care, keeping parents and caregivers out of the workforce, the report said.

An idea for a voter initiative to fund early childhood education and other programs was part of the Child and Family Action Plan that the County Council approved in 2020.

"We have a chance to design a fund that not only puts resources where they will do the most good — child care, pediatric mental health, prevention of family homelessness — but also a fund with a system of accountability that measures and reports on the effectiveness of those dollars," said child-welfare advocate Ray Deck III of Skookum Kids, another member of the Children's Initiative Committee.

An ordinance that sent the measure to the voters was approved 5-1-1 by the County Council, with Councilmember Ben Elenbaas opposed and Councilmember Tyler Byrd abstaining.

The ordinance gives the Health Department oversight of a Healthy Children's Fund, limiting administrative costs to 9% and requires regular audits of fund use and evaluation of how its programs are working.

Arguments for Prop. 5

Supporters of the measure said that money spent to prepare young children for school will pay dividends in many ways, from allowing more parents to enter the workforce, to helping children succeed in school.

Their Yes for Whatcom Kids! campaign has raised $203,200 and spent $160,995 through Oct. 19, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Key contributors include $50,000 from PeaceHealth, $60,000 from the Chuckanut Health Foundation and $50,000 from the Children's Funding Accelerator, a nonpartisan organization that helps fund children's initiatives nationwide.

Backers have also raised $51,629 from individuals, including $2,500 from Mike Hammes of RAM Construction and another $2,500 from his company; $5,000 from Patti Imhof of IMCO Construction and $5,000 from IMCO's vice president Ashley Kimberley; and thousands of dollars in contributions from donors who list their occupations in the health care field.

It's further endorsed by the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Whatcom Family YMCA, the Boys & Girls Club, and several dozen civic groups, unions and political organizations, including the Whatcom Democrats.

"Voting (to approve the tax) supports our economy — getting families back to work, and helps build a safer and healthier community long term. It has tough fiscal accountability: money is used effectively and as promised — independent audits, full disclosure. Our kids can't wait," supporters said in their ballot statement, which was written by Emily O'Connor, Guy Occhiogrosso and Hammes.

Arguments against Prop. 5

Opponents said that everyone is struggling financially in Whatcom County amid high inflation and that the proposal is poorly timed.

It criticizes the Health Department as having "no accountability," and claims there will be no oversight, despite language in the measure guaranteeing that.

"When has a government-led program ever been successful?" said the ballot statement against the measure, which was written by Laurie Williams and John Marshall.

No opposition group has reported fundraising to the PDC.

This story was originally published October 23, 20225:00 AM.


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