King County voters will decide in August on a proposed extension and expansion of the Best Starts for Kids levy, which has given hundreds of millions of dollars to 570 programs over the last five years, in an effort to foster children’s development by supporting wide-ranging early-intervention programs.
The Metropolitan King County Council on Tuesday unanimously approved County Executive Dow Constantine’s proposal to continue and expand the expiring levy, sending it to the ballot in August.
The proposal would raise about $872 million over the next six years, according to County Council staff, a significant increase over the expiring levy. When it was passed in 2015, the levy carried a property tax rate of 14-cents per $1,000 of assessed value. But, as property values have increased, the rate has dropped. This year, it’s about 11.5-cents per $1,000.
The rate of the proposed levy is 19-cents per $1,000 and represents a nearly 65% increase over the existing rate. The owner of a median-priced home in King County would pay $114 per year for the new levy, Constantine’s office said.
The levy was approved by voters in 2015 despite only vague descriptions of what exactly would be funded. Instead, money was devoted to specific age groups and priorities, things like improving the health of newborns, identifying depression in adolescents and helping stave off homelessness, with details to follow.
“Best Starts for Kids has been shaped by families, community members and participating organizations actually more than the county itself over the last five years of the levy,” Councilmember Joe McDermott said Tuesday.
McDermott called the levy the “most progressive piece of legislation I’ve worked on in my career in public service.”
The funding would continue to go to past priorities, including preventing homelessness, youth mentoring, health centers in schools and providing in-home services for new parents. It would also go toward increasing access to child care in the county, with aims to subsidize child care for more than 3,000 low-income kids.
“Affordable, accessible child care is necessary to improve racial and gender equity in King County and will be critical in the region’s economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic,” Constantine wrote in a letter to the County Council. “The County has the opportunity and the moral imperative to provide clear leadership and to support families just out of reach of state and federal child care programs.”
The levy renewal, like the original, lays out spending priorities largely by age, with 39% of funding dedicated to serving kids up to age 5, and 29% for youth between ages 5 and 24. About 23% of funding would be for child care and homelessness prevention, with the remainder for community-directed organizations and program evaluation.
Constantine’s office says that the 2015 levy served more than 500,000 youth and families, with a focus on preventing homelessness, funding health centers in schools and providing in-home services for new parents. Smaller amounts of funding have also gone to organizations involved in political advocacy and lobbying.
He credited the levy’s homelessness prevention initiatives with helping keep 9,200 families housed.
Councilmember Dave Upthegrove described a mentoring program, funded by the levy, at Southcenter Mall. When a teenager gets caught shoplifting (for an amount under $750), instead of being taken away by police, they’re sent to an on-site counselor at the mall.
The counselor will talk with the youth about the offense, about their lives and help them write a letter of apology or make amends in some other way.
“More than 200 young people avoided a criminal record,” Upthegrove said. “That’s the power of the Best Starts for Kids ballot measure, that’s just one example of how this is transforming systems.”