A taxing issue

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— If they can be convinced that child care, like public school education, is an essential public good, voters will be willing to make a financial commitment to it, says Aspen's highest child-care administrator.

The voters in the city of Aspen passed a joint affordable housing/child care sales tax by a wide margin in 1999, renewing a tax that had reached its sunset after 10 years, Shirley Ritter said. Ritter, who directs the city of Aspen's Kids First child-care pilot, oversees city sales-tax revenues for child care, which share .45 cents on the dollar with affordable housing.

About 40 percent of that tax goes to child care, bringing in about $800,000 every year for everything from income-assistance programs to grants for the 14 licensed child-care providers in the area, Ritter said. The money is collected in the city but given to residents throughout Pitkin County and even to some who work in the county but do not live there.

Aspen's model may bode well for Steamboat's First Impressions board, which is attempting to place a city sales tax and county property tax dedicated to early childhood education on this November's ballot.

The county has decided to place the property-tax question on the November ballot, and the city will discuss the issue again on Aug. 21, when it may decide to refer the issue to the voters. The city has made it apparent it will be referring the tax to the voters, though City Council members did not show support for adding a half-cent sales tax to the already high city sales tax, even if groceries are exempted.

In Steamboat, Aspen is usually referred to as a resort city about one to two decades ahead of Steamboat Springs in terms of both its successes and frightening failures. Child care, like affordable housing, is viewed by some in town as an issue about which the community can and should be proactive. Others see child care as an expensive choice for parents who should be willing to put up the money. They should not have to ask taxpayers to subsidize their children and their children's teachers.

Aspen's child-care centers are able to charge an average of $37.50 per child per day significantly more than Steamboat's $28 to $32 range in part because of the tax revenue.

Steamboat's child-care centers are preparing to raise their prices if the tax passes. The tax revenue, then, would be dedicated primarily to subsidizing parents who meet income requirements. Tami Havener, who is on the First Impressions board, calculates the actual cost of providing child care in Steamboat Springs at $49 per child per day. While child-care centers may not be raising their prices that much, the cost to send a child to a licensed child-care provider would invariably go up.

That means some parents who are above the income requirements may be asked to both pay more for child care and pay a tax to subsidize other people. Answering the question as to why those people, and others who stay at home and take care of their children or do not have children at all, should pay the tax may be the most difficult task ahead for the First Impressions board.

Ritter said she thinks the answer to the question has to do with convincing people the need for early childhood education is important enough for the entire community to get behind it.

"It depends on whether you look at this as a public good or if you look at it as a marketplace issue," Ritter said.

Ritter said the tax proceeds have allowed Aspen to offer scholarships from $300 to $3,000 to child-care teachers who continue their education and become more qualified. The city of Aspen still has a high turnover rate for child-care providers but has been able to retain more quality teachers and provide a supportive environment, Ritter said. The Aspen tax money also goes to pay for facilities, including the purchase of an old elementary school now being used by four different licensed child-care providers.

Because child-care centers are not in fact public schools and do not offer free admission, the argument may be more difficult to make than convincing people to pay their property taxes toward public education. And because child-care teachers do not need a special degree or specific certifying courses to be licensed like public school teachers, the task may also include convincing the public that those teachers need similar skills to run their classrooms.

First Impressions board members have been trying to promote the tax as an education tax, much like the county property taxes that support the K-12 public school system. They have pointed to studies that show that most brain development occurs before the age of 6, while the majority of public spending on education occurs after that. Havener, who is also on the Steamboat Springs School Board, said she thinks teachers at child-care facilities should be getting paid as much as public school teachers, with lead teachers making as much as $35,000 per year. She said she thinks that money could help facilities retain the best staff and give parents and kids a better sense of stability at the centers.

First Impressions community liaison Renee Donahue also believes in the concept of early childhood education as a public good and stresses the idea that the public needs to pitch in to help keep child-care centers from going out of business a situation that would have drastic effects for the entire community.

"In order to keep these places open, something's got to give or they're all going to go out of business," Donahue said.

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