Routt County to explore placing child care-focused measure on 2022 ballot
When Routt County voters head to the polls next November, they may be asked to approve a new taxing mechanism to support local early childhood education.
The Routt County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday discussed putting out a request for proposal seeking a consultant who would begin studying the issue and the feasibility of various funding mechanisms for child care — a first step toward a ballot question that other communities have pursued.
“The early childhood education issues aren’t getting solved. In the 20 years that I have been in this community, we are still in the same spot,” said Angela Pleshe, program leader for First Impressions of Routt County, the local early childhood council.
There has been a shortage of child care options and early childhood education teachers in the Yampa Valley since before the pandemic, but the COVID-19 environment exasperated the issue into a crisis. But the past year has also forced the community to grapple with the issue on a more personal level, creating momentum that hasn’t been there before when debating about going to the voters in the past.
“It wasn’t the right time, wasn’t the right economy, the right environment,” Pleshe said of previous times a ballot question has been discussed. “We finally feel like the issues that have happened this year — Little Lambs closing and all the other centers strapped for staff — that this is the time that we need to look at investigating a dedicated, stable funding source.”
Commissioner Beth Melton, who also sits on the childhood council and has been an advocate for child care since before she was elected to the Routt County Board of Commissioners in 2018, agreed with Pleshe.
“(Child care) is a public good, and I think the community seems to be in a place where folks agree with that,” Melton said. “It does feel like the right time to really make that ask.”
What that potential question could look like, and if it has community support to even be placed on the ballot, will be part of the consultant’s job to explore. The proposal states it could be a property tax, a sales tax or a sin tax, among other options. The question may include voters in the whole county or just parts of it.
Whatever it eventually looks like, securing a dedicated, local public funding mechanism for child care by 2023 is a strategic priority for First Impressions.
The model of hiring a consultant to investigate a dedicated funding source is the same way San Miguel County started a child care funding process that ended when voters approved a countywide 0.75-mill levy in 2017.
The request for proposal is not finalized but outlines a plan that includes three parts. It would begin with a needs assessment, studying what the funding would be used for, how it would be spread out around the county, who or what would allocate the money and what the mechanism would look like.
The consultant would also be tasked with conducting interviews with key local leaders and develop a plan to understand what the opinion of the community is toward a potential question. They would also likely poll focus groups to gauge whether a measure would pass if placed on the ballot.
“There are a lot of technical aspects to figuring that out that you need some outside entity,” Melton said. “You really need someone who spends the time, whether it’s focus groups or it’s polling … but you need someone to do that work and gather and collect and come back with recommendations.”
Pleshe estimated the cost for the consultant at about $50,000 based on what Larimer County paid for someone in the same role. Half would be paid using money from dollars First Impressions gets from the Human Resources Council, and Pleshe said she is hoping to get the rest donated from local funders. If that funding can’t be raised, the county would likely backfill the rest of the cost. Polling, if needed, could add to the cost.
“We are 100% supportive of getting the public feedback and figuring out a mechanism to support early childhood better than we have in the past,” said Mark Andersen with the Craig-Scheckman Family Foundation, one of the local donors.
Another aspect the consultant would look into is who would control the money raised. First Impressions is part of the county, where all other early childhood councils in the state are separated from county government. The ballot question could also ask to create an early childhood development district, which would be the first of its kind.
Andersen pointed to other taxing entities as an example of how this could work, specifically the Education Fund Board that allocates money to local school districts from a half-cent sales tax.
If a question is posed to voters, the goal would be to get it on the ballot in November 2022, Pleshe said.
“This is a point in time where I do believe we have public opinion with us — we do have the wind at our back,” said Commissioner Tim Redmond. “If there was ever a time to move forward with this, I think this is the time.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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