A crisis of care: Local incentives, proposed state legislation hold promise for some child care solutions
Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a four-part series of stories focusing on the challenges parents and guardians face in finding adequate child care in Garfield County. Read the first part, “No winners in Western Slope’s child care dilemma,” the second part, “Family, Friends and Neighbors in Need,“ and the third part, ”There’s always something,“ at PostIndependent.com.
Crystal Mariscal remembers hectic mornings and the equally chaotic return home as a single mother when her children were little.
She was living in Rifle and working housekeeping jobs in Aspen. Her youngest of four children, now 14, was 2 or 3 at the time, and the others ranged from preschool age to being old enough to attend elementary school.
Mariscal relied on the bus to get to Aspen, meaning she needed to be at the bus stop by a little after 6 a.m.
Her daycare provider opened at 6, so she’d often drop off her children and run to the bus stop.
“I was always there ready when she opened the door, then I’d have to run about 5 minutes to get to the bus,” Mariscal said.
The return home was just as rushed.
Mariscal would finish work around 4 p.m., foregoing lunch so she could finish in time to make the bus and be back in
Rifle at her daycare by 6 p.m. — closing time.
“She was always there waiting, and I was usually the last to get there,” Mariscal said.
Mariscal eventually took a job with that same daycare and got an insider’s look at the struggles of working families — especially the mothers who were often the ones to navigate the drop-off and pick-up routine.
“It was the only way I could work and have my own kids in daycare,” said Mariscal, who took a big pay cut but also took the opportunity to begin taking college classes so she could eventually start her own business.
Thinking back, she questions some of her decisions around the various informal daycare options she used for her children to supplement her needs.
A 2021 U.S Treasury Department report indicated that 20% of American children younger than 5 live with their mother alone.
Mariscal now sits on the New Castle Town Council and chairs the new Garfield County Latino Community Committee. She’s become an advocate on a lot of issues through her role as a community organizer.
Interlinked with finding affordable housing is the ability to earn a living wage and have both work and affordable daycare as close to home as possible.
Given soaring commercial rents, lack of available and adequate space for child care centers and preschools, labor costs and labor shortages, and strict regulations around home daycares, it’s a difficult need to meet.
But the child care crisis has come to the forefront of solutions-based actions both locally and at the state level, where some different things are in the works to try to meet the demand.
Within the tri-county area (Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties), programs like Eagle County’s rental assistance program for early childhood providers, and a recent land offer by the town of Basalt for a new child care center within the Willits development are aimed at providing more options for families, while keeping costs down.
And the Colorado Legislature is currently considering three separate bills designed to give incentives for new child care centers to open and keep existing ones in business.
- House Bill 22-1006, “Child Care Center Property Tax Exemption,” providing property tax relief for property that’s used as an integral part of a nonprofit child care center, which in turn could help reduce rent costs and ultimately fees for child care.
- House Bill 22-1010, “Early Childhood Educator Income Tax Credit,” providing an income tax credit for eligible early childhood educators so that more people might enter the profession.
- HB 22-1070, “Special Districts Early Childhood Development,” refining the state’s rules for creating early childhood development service districts so that they can include portions of existing taxing districts, and allowing them to accept gifts, grants and donations.
Responding to the need
Blue Lake Preschool, based at the Blue Lake residential neighborhood in El Jebel, with its sister child care center and preschool, Little Blue in Carbondale, has been one of the few operations to expand in recent years.
But it has not come without some help from local governments, plus a significant private fundraising effort.
Recently, Blue Lake was selected by the Basalt Town Council to be the provider of a new child care program in a facility to be built on property deeded to the town for community purposes when it reviewed and approved the residential portion of the larger Willits development.
“Child care reminds me of the discussions about the weather — everybody talks about it, (but) nobody does anything about it. We’re doing something about it,” Basalt Mayor Bill Kane commented at the time the agreement was approved.
The new facility would add child care for between 130 and 145 infants, toddlers, preschoolers and younger school-aged children per day.
Currently, Blue Lake Preschool serves 114 children, infant through fourth grade. Little Blue just relocated and expanded in Carbondale to serve 39 children per day.
But the two locations combined consistently maintain a wait list of more than 500 children, said Blue Lake Preschool Executive Director Michelle Oger. Other child care facilities in the region have similar wait lists, she said.
“The town of Carbondale has been very supportive throughout the whole process, working with us to do the building remodel and expansion,” Oger said. That included making sure zoning allowed for a child care facility and waiving certain fees to help things along.
Carbondale Trustee Ben Bohmfalk said the zoning allowance was a big step in allowing day cares to locate in more areas of town.
The town also recently came into ownership of several undeveloped downtown commercial parcels in the Town Center on Colorado Avenue. While the town’s leaders are just beginning to talk about the potential uses of those parcels, and possible public-private partnerships to achieve those uses, it makes sense to include child care in the conversation, Bohmfalk said.
“We’re really trying to cast a wide net and just open up the discussion of what are the town’s needs,” said Bohmfalk, who is running unopposed for the open mayor’s seat this spring.
“Housing is certainly part of that discussion,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity to chip away at other under-served needs, as well.”
Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes followed that same line of thinking, and noted that discussions around a recent inventory of city-owned properties also focused more on meeting affordable housing needs.
“All of these needs — from housing to child care to mental health to other social services — are competing for land, dollars and attention,” Godes said. “Especially in Glenwood Springs, though, we’re geographically constrained and don’t have a lot of available land.”
For that reason, finding a way to facilitate more home-based daycares may be a more fruitful focus, he said.
Paying the rent
Blue Lake Preschool was also among the early childhood providers based in Eagle County to take advantage of the county’s rental assistance program for such services.
The program came about during the height of the pandemic as a way to help child care centers stay open and weather the various public health restrictions that had to be put into place.
In 2021, Eagle County provided more than $313,200 in financial assistance to help 11 different providers cover rent, mortgages and other overhead costs. In some cases that came to as much as $8,000 a month, said Samantha Markovitz, Early Childhood Coordinator for the county.
“We had a maximum of $3,000 a month that we were able to pay, but even that was a big help for some of those providers,” she said.
Just this month, Eagle County commissioners agreed to fund the program for another two years, with additional funding provided by the Frechette Family Foundation. That will enable the county to provide more than $516,000 per year in assistance to 13 early childhood providers in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys, without any caps.
“This program is unprecedented in helping to lighten the financial and operational load facing Eagle County’s dedicated providers,” Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said.
Neighboring counties might be able to model the program, Markovitz said. In any case, many Garfield County families can benefit from the Eagle County program.
“With the commuter nature of our valleys, a lot of lines get crossed where people live and work in different counties,” she said.
And, “it does matter for people where their children go to child care,” Markovitz said, noting that even though someone lives in western Garfield County and works in Pitkin, they might prefer to have daycare service somewhere in the middle for the sake of convenience.
Mariscal also mentioned that it might have been more convenient when she was doing the daily Aspen commute to find a child care program somewhere in the middle to avoid those late-day pickups.
For Blue Lake Preschool, the county’s assistance allowed them to put funds back into programming, teacher training and pay, and tuition assistance for families, Oger said.
State stepping in
The three Colorado bills currently in legislative committee and likely headed to the House floor and on to the Senate could go a long way to help existing day care centers lower costs and incentivize new ones to open.
With respect to the property tax exemption bill, there’s no guarantee, though.
Ideally, any property owners taking advantage of the exemption would pass that savings on via reduced rents for providers, which then could result in reduced fees or tuition for families, explained bill co-sponsor Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat representing Eagle and Routt counties, during a Feb. 1 House Public & Behavioral Health and Human Services Committee hearing.
“Access is vital for many families,” said Republican co-sponsor Kevin Van Winkle, R-Douglas County. “This an attempt to cut taxes that unnecessarily increase the cost of child care and serves to level the playing field.”
The bill has earned the endorsement of public policy and legislative lobbying groups such as Grand Junction-based Club 20 and the Bell Policy Center.
Julie Pecaut, the director of strategy and operations for the Bell Policy Center, said the bill addresses some of the key costs to providing larger-scale child care services.
“The break-even margins are extraordinarily slim for most, and they’re barely breaking even, if they are at all,” Pecaut said.
A concern among critics of the bill, however, is that the tax credit could only apply if the service is provided by a nonprofit organization, and excludes private operators. A constitutional change would be required to be able to extend it to private entities, Van Winkle noted.
Republican state Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, whose district includes Garfield County, is a co-sponsor of the Special Districts bill. Requests for comment on the proposal were not returned.
In addition to allowing childhood development service districts to exist without being concurrent with other taxing entity boundaries, it would allow such districts to accept outside gifts, grants and donations, in addition to whatever taxes are levied.
Finally, the Early Childhood Educator Income Tax Credit would provide for a refundable income tax credit for five income years for eligible early childhood educators.
The proposal does have limitations, including an adjusted gross income maximum threshold in order to qualify, as well as certification requirements and proof of employment with a licensed child care facility or home daycare, or the head of a licensed home daycare.
The facility or program must also have achieved a certain quality rating by the state.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.