Commissioners, Rep. Roberts discuss child care crisis

Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Avon, has represented the states 26th District, which includes all of Routt and Eagle counties, since 2017.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Routt County is pursuing several avenues to improve current child care crunch in the Yampa Valley, but officials say even these are little more than “Band-Aid” solutions.

Child care is now an issue that is talked about almost as much as housing locally, and Angela Pleshe, program leader for First Impressions of Routt County, said that is because the situation has become such a crisis.

To try to ease the situation, Pleshe said she has worked to change how they provide tuition assistance to families and has had conversations with child care centers about giving bonuses or stipends to current staff.

“That is just putting a Band-Aid on things right now,” Pleshe told Rep. Dylan Roberts on Tuesday in a meeting with commissioners about child care. “What it is really going to take is we need salaries to be competitive with public schools.”

Pleshe has estimated that number to be $25 per hour, which, assuming a 40-hour per week schedule, comes out to $52,000 per year.

Roberts, a Democrat who represents Routt and Eagle counties in the Colorado State House, said stimulus bills passed in Denver during last year’s special session, and this year’s regular session are likely the largest single-year investment in Colorado for a very long time.

“We have out a lot of the Federal (American Rescue Plan Act) money into the Office of Early Childhood, as well as the (Colorado Child Care Assistance Program) account,” Roberts said.

Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton said ensuring that these programs are flexible is important to ensure counties like Routt are able to benefit from the funding. For example, half the federal money meant to stabilize child care that is going directly to centers needs to be used to lower to the cost of tuition for families. That isn’t really the current problem in the Yampa Valley.

“I understand why that would be done, but with all the work we’ve done locally to support tuition for families, I would say our centers need to have flexibility in how they use these dollars,” Melton said. “I think it is well-intentioned but … that affordability for families is not our primary challenge right now.”

Roberts said he believes many of the state dollars will remain flexible, and the legislature even made some adjustments between legislation passed in 2020 and 2021.

“If we want to talk about changing some of the flexibility around tuition in trying to let a place like Routt County to use some of those dollars to hire staff or retain staff, and that’s an alternative, I don’t think that door is closed,” Roberts said, adding that they should follow up with state agencies that are making rulemaking around the legislation.

Roberts said he has heard from constituents in Eagle County about child care, like in Routt, where the problem isn’t tuition but having enough centers and the staff to keep them open.

“I think this is all interconnected with housing and retaining workforce,” Roberts said. “Housing is something that I am working on a lot this interim and … hopefully, we can make some progress on that. I imagine that is a big part of retaining staff in Steamboat and Routt County.”

Roberts sits on the legislature’s affordable housing task force that will make recommendations to the General Assembly about what could be done with pandemic aid to address the problem across the state. He is also part of the economic recovery focused task force that is looking specifically at workforce issues.

“The housing task force got $400 million but the workforce taskforce also got $400 million,” Roberts said. “That could also be a place that we need to look to get workforce support for child care workers and teachers.”

Pleshe said another concern locally is if centers in Steamboat and Routt County are going to be able to get some of this money because the local sales tax for both has been higher than expected.

“On paper, it doesn’t look like we have economic recovery needs,” Pleshe said, expressing a worry that those surplus revenues could potentially disqualify the county for other aid.

But even if the county gets aid from these packages, Roberts said it isn’t going to eliminate the problem.

“Obviously, there is a lot of funding coming to the state right now, but that is one time funding for the most part,” Roberts said. “We need to make changes that last much longer than those funds will be around.”

Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan said he believes child care is a broken market — a point Melton has made before, as well — and it should be handled like public education.

“Ideally, we would be treating birth to five the same way we approach K-12 education, where it is a common good and government … would simply be taxing and providing for this,” Corrigan said. “While I might want that to be the case, the reality is that we are going to have to have some more local and market based solution.”

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