Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Board may hire political strategist

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - With Butler County Children Services at a critical financial crossroads, the agency's board would like to tap the expertise of veteran Cincinnati political strategist Brewster Rhoads and professional pollsters to help them determine whether to ask for a 2.2-mill levy renewal in November, or to ask for a levy increase.

The board is talking about hiring Rhoads, who has managed many tax levy campaigns, including the one for the Cincinnati Public Schools' $480 million bond issue that won voter approval in May.

They haven't established the cost of retaining the strategist, but are talking about a wide-ranging campaign. Besides the levy campaign, there would be a general public-awareness effort to inform the community about the agency's services, build community support and recruit foster parents and volunteers.

"We need to do a survey and find out what our public perception is," board Chairman Hall Thompson said after Tuesday's board meeting. "We have to look more at financial numbers."

It will be about two more weeks before the Children Services Board decides how big a levy to seek, Thompson said. The board must make a recommendation to the county commissioners before Aug. 21, the deadline for filing tax issues with the Butler County Board of Elections for the Nov. 4 ballot. The commissioners would vote to place the levy on the ballot.

At the very least, Children Services needs a 2.2-mill levy renewal to maintain services.

"It's very vital and essential of the future of the agency that we put a levy on the ballot and get it passed," board Vice Chairman Johnny Wade Sloan said.

Public funds could be used to pay for public-awareness activities not connected to the levy campaign. A separate campaign fund would have to be established for levy activities.

The agency, which protects abused, neglected and dependent children, recently announced it is cutting $4.3 million from its budget to avoid a deficit at the end of the year.

The cutbacks include the layoff of six administrators and three clerical workers. The agency also will refrain from filling nine vacant positions. The biggest cost savings will come from moving children from out-of-county residential treatment and foster care facilities.

Jann Heffner, who became the agency's executive director in November, has promised not to lay off caseworkers, who provide direct services to children and parents.

Children Services has been in a massive reform effort for the past three years, an effort that accelerated with the hiring of Heffner. The reforms have been aimed at improving services, emphasizing family reunification instead of child removal and making the agency more open and accessible to the families it serves and to the general public.

Thompson said it's crucial for the levy campaign to make sure the public knows about these reforms.


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