Council rejects child-care proposal

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— Saying the proposal had flaws, the Steamboat Springs City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to reject a motion to place a half-cent sales tax to subsidize child care on the November ballot.

"The concept is heartfelt and sincere and vital to the community," said Councilwoman Arianthe Stettner, who voted against the motion. "But the structure is troubling to me."

The decision came despite a strong showing of support for the proposal developed by First Impressions of Routt County. Centennial Hall was packed, including an estimated 75 children who carried colorful signs with slogans such as "Let my dad vote," and "Let the people decide."

First Impressions gave a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation detailing:

n The importance of quality education at younger ages, when brain development is crucial.

n The proposed collection and distribution cycle and current sources of funding.

n Information from surveys showing support for community funding of early childhood education.

Board member Tami Havener estimated that of the 1,000 children below age 5 in the county, 800 would benefit from the estimated $1.8 million the sales-tax increase would raise each year. The funding also would benefit the estimated 100 child-care workers in the county by providing them with wage increases.

Betty Reed, who has been teaching preschoolers at Holy Name Preschool for 21 years, said the funding is necessary to ensure the community has a stable work force of quality pre-school teachers. Reed, who earns $15 an hour, said the typical early education teacher is college-educated and child oriented, but underpaid.

"A lot of young people inquire about the work and when they hear that we make $10 an hour, they're in disbelief," she said.

Peggy Warren, who has been teaching at Holy Name for seven years, said that the center could not afford to offer her paid vacation, sick days or holidays. Pat O'Leary said that funding would ensure a "safe and nurturing environment" at day-care centers where she already struggles to meet the $60 per day it costs for two children in child care.

Councilman Ken Brenner, who is also on the First Impressions board, made the motion to pass the proposal, arguing it was a work force issue that would help stabilize employment in those facilities by reducing turnover rates and increasing quality.

Councilman Bud Romberg voted for the proposal along with Brenner, although he felt that the city-wide tax still left "an unfilled need" and that it "didn't cover the entire population."

Stettner admonished advocates of the tax for not answering questions the council raised about the proposal in its June 19 meeting. She also noted that there was a section of the population such as senior citizens on fixed incomes who felt they could not support that tax.

"I'm just not comfortable with the way it's presented right now," Stettner said.

Councilman Paul Strong suggest restructuring the proposal toward a property tax, or giving grants to needy families or teachers. He also said it concerned him that elected officials would not have oversight of the sales-tax funding and how it was spent.

Council President Kevin Bennett suggested more county participation, pointing out that it was unfair for Steamboat Springs to levy a tax that would benefit the entire county. Afterward, Havener said she was highly disappointed. She felt they had answered the council's questions that it was "obviously not what they were looking for."

Some supporters felt the council should have at least allowed the community to decide on the proposal.

"It appears to me that some of our council members need to be reminded that our voters are an informed group," said resident John Kerst. "They should be given an opportunity to vote on issues such as supporting child care."

Havener argued that child-care centers currently charge parents less than what it costs to provide care for their children. According to estimates Havener prepared, a center with 60 children running 250 days a year has operating costs of $49.64 per day per child. Currently, area centers charge between $28 and $32 per day per child.

"What child-care centers are charging doesn't cover the true child-care costs," said Michelle Brooks, a Resources and Referral Specialist for Children's Services Child Care Referral in Boulder. "They should be able to charge more so they can hire more staff."

Steamboat's average daily rates are in line with child-care rates in similar communities. Carriage House in Silverthorne charges $29 to $35 depending on age; Little Red Schoolhouse in Breckenridge also charged within that range, as did the city of Boulder.

Council members encouraged First Impressions to develop a different proposal for consideration, but the nonprofit organization was unsure Tuesday what its next step would be.

"We'll be meeting fairly soon and exploring what, if any, options we have left," said board member Medora Fralick.

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