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Leelanau County Board to vote again on budget for Early Childhood Development Program

Screengrab of the Leelanau County Board of Commission special meeting on Sept. 21.

The Leelanau County’s Board of Commissioners will revisit funding for the early childhood development program at its 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday. The majority of commissioners voted last week to slash the program’s budget for next year.

Commissioners heard from the community and those with early childhood experience at a special meeting Monday, after which some commissioners said they were no longer planning to reduce the budget to zero.

Leelanau County voters approved the early childhood development program in the November 2019 election.

The millage costs most homeowners roughly $50 dollars a year for a five year period and funds parent support groups, monitored play groups and home-visits with social workers for families with children younger than five.

Heidi Kruse, the vice chair of the Leelanau Early Childhood Development Commission said these services are important for the whole community.

“Ninety percent of its brain develops from zero to five,” Kruse said. “It’s critical that that child has secure attachment, and we need to make sure that those families have the resources that they need.”

The program, run by the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, has only been in effect for about a year, with only a few months of in-person services.

Commissioner William Bunek proposed the change to the millage last week. He said that many of his constituents felt the taxes they were paying for the program were excessive and the services unnecessary.

“I don’t believe it’s right to overtax people,” Bunek said at the meeting Monday.

Dozens of people spoke during the public comment period at Monday’s meeting in favor of fully-funding the early childhood services.

Several parents said it had helped them through difficult moments of their life, like when they were adapting to becoming a single parent.

Suttons Bay father Jarrod Pontius said the program helped his wife when she was learning to breastfeed their daughter last year.

“From when our daughter was born, the hospital referred us to this program and [I have] nothing but great things to say about it,” he said.

One of the few who spoke against the mileage was Ann Schuleter, a mom of four.

She echoed Republican commissioners from the previous meeting, who felt there were already enough services that support families, including programs at local churches, charities, Pre-kindergarten and WIC.

“I want the choice for my children, and I would like to keep the government out of my home,” Schuleter said.

Commissioners heard from the health department and other speakers who talked about the benefits and where the funds go.

By then, two of the board’s Republican members appeared to have reconsidered. They said it was not their intention to eliminate funding for the program, but they wanted to make sure the proper amount is being allocated.

“I look forward to honoring the vote of the people tomorrow night,” said Commissioner Debra Rushton.

Still, some residents are angry the board is even having that vote Tuesday, especially since this project was already approved by voters.

Jackie Anderson, who lives in Suttons Bay, said she feels like the situation undermines democracy.

“This is a dangerous precedent,” she said. “This is so much bigger than this one issue. To me it looks like a direct threat to our liberty and the foundations of how American government should work.”

A resident of Commissioner Bunek’s district, Anderson said she’s pursuing a recall petition to remove Bunek from office before he’s up for reelection next year—even if the early childhood program funding is restored.

According to Anderson, the petition would need 517 signatures to put the recall on the ballot.

The Leelanau County Board will meet again tonight during their regular meeting at 7 p.m. to adopt the budget for the Early Childhood Development program.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.