Aspen officials look to fast track child care options

Aspen City Council gave direction Tuesday to address a dearth of affordable child care, which has become as big of a crisis as the shortage of housing in the upper valley.

“This work should’ve started years ago,” Councilwoman Rachel Richards said during a three-hour work session on how to add child care options for young working families.

There are few options for parents to place their infants, toddlers and preschoolers in a quality day care facility during the work day.

And it is forcing people to leave the community. As a result, it erodes the workforce necessary to operate a healthy community and a world-class resort.

It boils down to a lack of staffing — in recruiting, retaining and pay — as well as the high cost of operations, and nuances in licensing and laws, to name a few challenges.

As it stands now, there are 30 licensed child care spaces available for infants, 88 for toddlers and 293 for preschoolers in Pitkin County, according to Shirley Ritter, director of the sales tax-funded Kids First program.

The situation is even more dire for infant care, she noted.

The birth rate to residents of Pitkin County in 2017 was 134 babies, and only 22% leaves 53 babies not in licensed care every year, according to Ritter.

Child care for one child in Aspen averages $68 a day, or $17,000 a year.

Waitlists exist for babies who haven’t even been conceived or born yet, child care specialists noted at Tuesday’s meeting.

Council agreed to fast track some longer term options that were presented Tuesday, including looking at child care facilities at the third phase of developing the Burlingame Ranch affordable housing neighborhood.

Also on the fast track list is looking at partnering with different organizations in the valley, specifically Colorado Mountain College, Cozy Point Ranch and the Aspen Valley Fire Protection District’s North Forty station for potential facility locations.

Councilman Skippy Mesirow said he would like to city staff to consider potential facilities at the Brush Creek Park and Ride, or the third floor of the new city office building at Rio Grande Place.

“We have a responsibility to solve this problem for every child that is born in this community,” he said. “Any and all options are open.”

How to pay for added child care capacity will be a major topic for future discussions among elected officials in the upper valley, as well as throughout the region.

Richards said she would support a ballot question in the 2020 election that would expand and add onto the existing sales tax that is funneled to Kids First.

Kids First is funded by half of a 0.45% sales tax, which brings in just over $2.2 million annually for the program.

That money covers teacher incentives, capital and quality improvement grants, financial aid to families and subsidies for child care programs within the county.

Interim City Manager Sara Ott said 55% of that sales tax revenue goes to child care while the remaining 45% is dedicated to affordable housing.

She said it is at council’s discretion to change the funneling of that money, if it chooses, noting that they are both “high needs in the community.”