September 29, 2022
Voters asked to approve child care support as demand exceeds supply
Matt Benoit and Sadie Fick

Finding child care is increasingly difficult for parents in Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties, as the number of providers decreases while the number of families looking for care grows. Whatcom County voters will have the opportunity in the November election to approve a funding measure to support both providers and families. (Matt Benoit photo © 2022)

September 29, 2022
Voters asked to approve child care support as demand exceeds supply
Matt Benoit and Sadie Fick

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Demand far outstrips the supply of available and affordable child care locally. The problem and its impacts are multifaceted, as solutions will also need to be. Is  This article is the second part of a two-part series, following “Child care shortfall frustrates families, hampers local economy,” Sept. 22, 2022.

Existing child care openings are enough to serve only a third of children in Whatcom and Skagit counties and fewer than half in San Juan County — and the number of child care businesses in all three counties dropped in the first eight months of this year. For a parent, no child care can mean no job: straitened family income and delayed career plans.

This November, Whatcom County voters will decide whether they will fund change for an overburdened child care system. 

They’ll do so via a ballot measure  that the Whatcom County Council approved in June. If passed, the measure will provide child care funding through a 10-year property tax increase of 19 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

The increase would amount to about $91.39 annually, or $7.62 per month for a property assessed at $481,000 in Whatcom County, to go toward a Healthy Children’s Fund. Those who qualify for property tax exemptions wouldn’t pay the increase.

An independent performance audit would be required every other year for transparency, along with annual reports evaluating progress and recommending improvements. 

The fund would create up to $8.2 million annually to better finance early learning and affordable child care, better prepare children for kindergarten and increase support for homeless and vulnerable children. 

David Webster, associate director for the Opportunity Council’s Early Learning and Family Services Department, is among those hoping that the money would go toward paying care workers better and creating new openings for children.

A matter of who and how

While most agree that something must be done to solve the child care conundrum, not everyone agrees on how it should be done and who should pay.

That includes county council members, who voted 5-1-1 on letting voters decide whether to enact the new proposal. 

Council member Barry Buchanan, whose said his single mother often relied on neighbors for child care while raising him in 1960s Bellingham, said he believes the tax increase is the best way to fill the proposed fund. 

“It’s critical,” he said. “This child care initiative is about being preventive rather than crisis-driven.”

This is especially true, he continued, in what’s referred to as a “hub-and-spoke” model of child care, where providers are spokes and funding sources a hub. 

“I don’t think that any of the spokes out there … (currently) have the capacity to be successful at the scale that we need,” Buchanan said. “I think we need the public investment to be able to create a hub in that hub-and-spoke model.”

Council member Ben Elenbaas — the lone “no” vote on the measure in June — said he believes funding is needed and will likely have positive impact on residents. But funding it with taxpayer money alongside other upcoming asks, he believes, isn’t the right way to approach things. 

“Everybody’s like, ‘it’s just one latte,’” he said. “Look, if you add up all the lattes, you’re getting latte’d to death out there. I have a really hard time asking taxpayers to fund it when we’re already collecting more revenue from them than we are even using in a productive manner.”

Voters are being asked to approve another property tax levy concerning emergency medical services, Elenbaas said, and additional revenue will eventually be needed for the formation of an additional county library district, a possible ferry district and the long-discussed new jail and treatment facility. 

November’s ballot measure is a bit too vague in places, he said, adding that he’d prefer state funding from a budget surplus to foot the child care bill instead. 

Policy possibilities?

Elenbaas is also interested in fixes that don’t necessarily cost more money, such as making changes to existing policies. 

For child care, one such policy is a county zoning rule potentially limiting in-home child care providers to six children per business — even though current state licensing guidelines allow a business up to 12, depending on how much space it has. 

When first interviewed by Salish Current, both Buchanan and Elenbaas said they were not aware of the zoning rule. On investigating, Buchanan said he found the rule requires an administrative review of a zoning permit if more than six children are to be cared for, to examine the potential impact of more children on septic systems, parking and traffic in a neighborhood. 

“We need to get it changed, but … there’s a lot of discussion that needs to take place before we really come up with something,” he said. 

Some of that discussion will take place within the county’s planning and development services and, eventually, the county council itself. A more immediate conversation, however, will be held between Buchanan, Webster and several local providers to assess the actual impact of the rule on current providers.  

Easing the burden

Providing better care and making it affordable requires action on several fronts.

Historically, providers that take subsidies have been the priority for the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), said Nicole Rose, assistant secretary of early learning for DCYF.

For example, Alaina Hirsch — whose eight-month-old son recently transferred from a Blaine provider to Bellingham’s YMCA — would be spending about $1,500 a month if not for the Working Connections Child Careprogram (WCCC). Because Hirsch qualifies for the program based on income, she pays only a $90 a month. 

“I think a lot of people don’t know about it … they’d be surprised by how much money you can make and still qualify,” she said.

Another subsidy-based improvement DCYF has been working on is the Fair Start for Kids Act. Passed by the state legislature in 2021, the act sets state subsidies at 85% of the 2018 market rate, Rose said; during the next legislative session, the rate may be updated to 85% of the 2021 market rate.

In addition, DCYF is working with the Washington State Department of Commerce to create a cost-of-care rate rather than market rate for calculating subsidies. Such a change, Rose explained, would more accurately reflect what it costs providers to care for a child. It could also help with low provider wages and having to deny children whose care is being paid for via subsidy because the provider can’t afford it. 

Beyond subsidy

“There’s been a shift in making investments beyond those providers that take subsidy and trying to really look at the system as a whole,” Rose said.

The Northwest Center for Child Care Retention and Expansion, created in 2020 as collaboration between the Opportunity Council and the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, has 24 Whatcom County providers working with the center, said Kenda Sipma, the center’s child care recruitment and expansion manager. 

These providers are either looking to expand within Whatcom County, or move there from somewhere else, Sipma explained. 

In addition to helping new or expanding providers, the center is also a resource for providers with limited business expertise. It also represents an acknowledgement by local business leaders of the importance of child care for the local economy.

“I think it’s sort of sinking in with policymakers and corporate leaders that [child care] is a service that holds the economy together in many ways and we can’t keep doing it on the cheap,” Webster said.

The key to a better system

One of the biggest things Sipma wants is for people to better understand the value of child care and those who provide it, and to act accordingly.

Before Sipma started her own child care business, she said she thought it couldn’t be that hard. But after some time, she decided to get a bachelor’s degree so she could do the job right. 

“If you think about [a child’s] waking hours, they are with their provider … more than they are with their parents,” Sipma said.

And all of that time adds up. Child care workers are trained to provide a healthy environment for educational, emotional and behavioral development, Webster said. More and more, they are also expected to keep in mind needs like mental health, diversity and varying levels of sociability, learning styles, attention and other mental functions.

Reshaping the image of child care so communities realize it requires expertise is a matter of both quality care and equity, Webster noted: Women rather than men typically stay home when families can’t access child care, and are also more likely than men to be care providers. 

Whether or not voters approve increased funding for local child care this November, one thing remains clear: adequate access to child care is essential for a healthy community now and in the future.

Child care is a hard business to be in, Webster noted, “and yet people stay with it for generations and decades because they realize how crucial the first five years are for brain development,” Webster said. “If we don’t get most children off to a really solid start, we’re going to pay a lot more down the road.”

— Reported by Matt Benoit and Sadie Fick

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photo: Amy Nelson © 2022
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