Routt County commissioners are willing to spend money this year to aid child care crisis | SteamboatToday.com
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Routt County commissioners are willing to spend money this year to aid child care crisis

For long-term funding, commissioners said it might be time to ask voters for help

The room was full for Monday's meeting of the Routt County Board of Commissioners, who were discussing issues surrounding child care in Routt County with the hope of finding possible solutions. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Routt County commissioners signaled their willingness Monday to spend money this year to ease the local child care crisis that has providers short staffed and parents struggling to find care.

The spending would likely be to support short-term solutions to the problem, such as marginally boosting the pay of early childhood education teachers and helping centers better advertise their open positions.

While Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan said the county does not have the money to assist with child care funding long term, spending now could bolster the situation until a more sustainable funding source could be secured.



As for that source, Corrigan said he thinks it would be appropriate to ask voters for support, adding that his opposition to a voter-approved tax for child care in the past may have been “short-sighted.”

“I think it would be appropriate for us, collectively, to consider asking the taxpayers for some money,” Corrigan said. “We shouldn’t be constricted by a fear of failure. I think we need to put something out to the folks in the community, and they can decide for themselves.”

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Monday’s meeting was scheduled in response to the worsening landscape for child care access locally, as the only child care center in South Routt County is set to close in less than three weeks, and there are as many as 25 positions open in local centers.

The gallery for the meeting was full with several parents bringing their young children with them to the meeting. Online, the meeting had participation that rivaled attendance at board of health meetings during the height of the pandemic.

After the meeting, Angela Pleshe, program leader for First Impressions of Routt County, said it was the number of people who showed up in person and online that gave her hope for a solution.

“It shows there is interest, and there are people that are very concerned about this problem,” Pleshe said. “It is not just a people-with-children problem.”

Angela Pleshe, program leader for First Impressions of Routt County, explains the local child care crisis and potential solutions at a meeting Monday. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Band-Aid solutions

While the child care issue needs a long-term solution, the situation has gotten so dire commissioners said they were willing to spend money on ideas meant to spur change right now.

As lack of staffing at centers across the county is the most immediate problem, Pleshe suggested the county help centers advertise their open positions to a broader audience of candidates.

“The hope is being able to take the strain of those advertising issues off the backs of the center directors might open up a little bit more funding, might take off a little bit of stress and get the word out to more people, and not just locally but around the state,” Pleshe said.

Another suggestion Pleshe offered was to boost the pay for teachers, who make on average between $14 and $23 per hour, according to a recent wage study by First Impressions.

The plan would likely add to a teacher’s hourly rate, boosting it by a dollar or two per hour. A boost of $1 per teacher per hour would cost around $250,000 per year. Pleshe said they have also talked about offering some sort of housing stipend, retention bonus or gas stipend for early childhood staff.

“We would like those funds to go directly into the teachers’ pockets,” Pleshe said. “This is not going to help the problem in the long run. This is really a short-term solution to really try to encourage the staff that are there and retain the staff that are there.”

Colleen Miller, executive director of the Family Development Center, said that a $1 or $2 pay bump per hour is not going to be enough.

“That is not going to make a difference. Our starting wage needs to be $25 an hour plus full benefits,” Miller said.

This is about more than just ensuring access to local child care, Miller said, but about keeping the character of Steamboat Springs as a family-friendly town.

“I talk to people all the time, parents that are like, if we lose our child care, we can’t be here,” Miller said.

While she believes teachers should be paid more as well, Commissioner Beth Melton said the slight boost in pay could really make a difference for those currently in these roles, adding that it wouldn’t be uncommon for someone in this pay range to leave a job for a couple more dollars per hour.

She also said it could help alleviate some of the stress on teachers with their personal budgets being a little less tight.

“Lots of us have stressful jobs, but when we can afford to feed our families and pay our bills, that stress goes down, and I don’t think we should underestimate that,” Melton said.

Colleen Miller, executive director at Discovery Learning Center, speaks to Routt County commissioners Monday. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Long-term ideas

When it comes to ideas meant to have a larger impact on the overall child care crisis, some start with helping those who work in the field find affordable housing.

Summit County recently purchased several master leases in a hotel and started offering those spaces to child care workers at a subsidized rent of $750 per month, Pleshe said. This costs Summit about $200,000 per year.

“The benefits helped and has been successful for Summit County,” Pleshe said.

Another idea would be to partner with local landlords for a subsidized rent that the county would contribute towards. An example, Pleshe gave was Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., offering $200 per month to landlords to ease employee rents.

While that program wasn’t that successful because it restricted the total rent for a unit to $700 per month, it could be a model to partnering with them now, Pleshe said.

She suggested trying to reach out to those who rent property short-term that may not see as much traffic because they have lesser amenities or are farther away from the mountain.

Another idea could involve partnering with landlords who may have some space that could be used to house new child care workers for a short period while they worked to find more permanent housing.

Finding more workers who already live locally could also be a solution, and Pleshe said First Impressions has written some grants to improve the workforce pipeline by connecting programs at local high schools and at higher education institutions like Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs and Colorado Northwestern Community College in Craig.

The program would encourage students to take early childhood education classes while still in high school and give them a head start in the field, Pleshe said.

“It will take some time obviously for new teachers to be ready,” Pleshe said. “Hopefully, we can get going on things pretty quickly because it is such a dire situation.”

Commissioners addressed issues surrounding child care in Routt County and opened the floor to the public with hopes of finding ideas for possible solutions. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Funding

The most obvious source for funding is from the American Rescue Plan, which Routt County is expecting to get nearly $5 million from.

Melton said the way they currently understand it, these funds could be used to support child care, and other counties are planning to use some of their money for this purpose.

The county’s budget is also in a healthy place, with revenue this year coming in higher than initially budgeted. While typically limited by state regulations, Corrigan said this added revenue may offer commissioners more flexibility than they would normally have.

“I think the job for us commissioners is broadly to get into that serious discussion about just how much money we can come up with,” Corrigan said.

Commissioners did not toss out a figure for how significant the spending could be, but Corrigan said the pending purchase of the Steamboat 700 land west of town will likely free up money to spend to support child care.

“The need for the county to engage in a significant financial way on housing has frankly been diminished,” Corrigan said. “I do think that provides us a little bit of flexibility to help on this situation.”

Corrigan also said he would be open to asking the voters for help, something he said he was against during his time as co-chair of the board for First Impressions.

“I wasn’t interested in putting a lot of my political capital behind something that I though would fail,” Corrigan said. “Given the current circumstances, I would be more optimistic.”


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