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Early childhood education taxes go before voters

Proponents say money would increase quality of care but opponents say plan is misguided

Gary E. Salazar

— On Nov. 6, Routt County residents will have the chance to decide if they want to pay more in sales and property taxes to better fund early childhood education.

Advocates of early childhood education in Routt County and Steamboat Springs have gotten two tax proposals on the ballot.

All Routt County residents will vote on a 1-mill property-tax increase. If approved, $9 per $100,000 of residential property value will be collected.

Steamboat Springs residents will vote on increasing the city’s sales tax by half a cent. The tax, which excludes food and utilities, would be used for Steamboat child-care facilities.

If both taxes are approved, about $1.6 million is expected to be generated by the city sales tax and $650,000 by the county property tax.

Proponents of the two taxes argue the money would be used to increase the quality of child care, create scholarships for families so they can afford the cost of higher-quality care and help recruit and retain more qualified child-care workers.

Opponents argue the tax will result in increased rates for child-care centers and are skeptical the tax will benefit families that need assistance the most.

Opponents also question why families and residents who don’t have children should subsidize the cost of child care for their neighbors.

Since the end of August, a group of about 30 has been reaching out to the community in an effort called “Campaign 4 Kids.” At the heart of the group’s message is that child-care education for children 5 and younger is critical.

“About 85 percent of all brain development happens before kids enter public schools,” said Tami Havener, the director of Discovery Learning Center and a member of Campaign 4 Kids.

“Most public funding doesn’t start until kids are 5. This tax is a way for us to publicly support these critical learning years.”

Brad Piske, who is leading the campaign, has two children in the public school system. He said he was frustrated with his experience of finding child care in Routt County.

“When I found out how much child-care providers are being paid, I was horrified,” Piske said. “I see this tax as a way to attract people to early education as a career.”

Piske said early childhood education funding should start at the local level.

“The government is not picking up the tab for early childhood education,” Piske said. “The government is not doing anything for preschool. It needs to start at the local level. If the government is not coming the plate, the local community must come to the plate. It is for the children.”

Opponents argue that if the taxes are approved, child-care centers will increase their rates from $32 a day to between $40 and $50 a day.

But Piske said even if the taxes are approved, it will be up to individual child-care centers to decide what rates to set.

“We are not telling the centers what to do,” Piske said. “What we are telling centers is to charge what they think is needed to operate a quality program and hire and retain qualified teachers.”

Havener has presented figures estimating the cost to provide quality child care at $49 per day, or $1,061 per month. And Piske argues the current rates are well below what it costs to provide a quality program.

“For some time, tuition has been relatively locked,” Piske said. “We know what it costs to provide a quality education.”

Along with proving funding for child-care workers, a portion of the tax money will also be used for scholarships.

“Every family will be asked to complete a financial aid application,” Havener said. “Scholarships will be based on the family’s income, cost of the child’s tuition and the quality of program they choose.

“The scholarships are to help support families. Everyone who qualifies through the financial aid program will be paying their fair share of the children’s tuition.”

The group is proposing families pay between 7 percent and 13 percent of their gross annual income on child care.

“We will encourage everyone to fill out a financial aid form,” Piske said.

Steamboat Springs resident Jocelyne Hillmuth is adamantly against the tax proposals.

For eight years, Hillmuth worked as a teacher but gave up her career to raise her three daughters, who range in age from 4 months to 5.

“Early child care is a choice, not a necessity,” Hillmuth said. “Why should my family pay for other people’s child care?”

Hillmuth recommends that going to the public for tax dollars is not the right approach. Hillmuth said employers must step up to the plate.

“If a business really needs people to work, they should subsidize the care,” Hillmuth said. “They should not look to struggling families who are trying to make it on one income.

“All I ask the public to do is do their homework and really look at what they are trying to do.”

Havener said funding child care could reduce the burden for taxpayers in the future.

“No one likes taxes,” Havener said. “But in order to have infrastructure that works, a tax that benefits our youngest kids is well invested.”

If the taxes are approved, a nine-member advisory board would be formed to make decisions and form policies.

The Steamboat Springs City Council and Routt County Commissioners would appoint three seats each. The Steamboat Springs, Hayden and South Routt school districts each would appoint a representative to the advisory board.

If the proposals fail, Piske is worried about child care in the county in the future.

“I see a huge hierarchy of child care based on social status,” Piske said. “I would like to avoid that.

“Whether the taxes are approved, people now know about this issue. We really feel making preschool available to everyone is important. If you disagree with this tax, educate yourself and come up with a better proposal.”

To reach Gary Salazar call 871-4205

or e-mail gsalazar@steamboatpilot.com


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