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  • Dylan Anderson

Just 23% of Routt County infants are in licensed child care as vast majority of centers report staffing struggle

A study from last fall showed there are at least 250 more children under five in Routt County than available slots for licensed child care, and that is likely a rosy estimate.

The youngest community members in the Yampa Valley are the least likely to have access to licensed child care, with just 23% of infants and 43% of toddlers having a formal arrangement for child care, according to a study conducted by First Impressions of Routt County.

About 42% of infants and toddlers are getting child care, often through a parent working from home, a family member or another informal situation. But 35% of infants and 15% of toddlers don’t have a clear plan for child care, the study showed.

“We know that infant and toddler (child care) is the hole,” said Meg Franges, the executive director of First Impressions, to the Routt County Commissioners on Monday. “There is no money to be made in infant and toddler care because you have to have fewer children to one adult.”

Overall, the study found there are 1,035 children under five years old in Routt County, but only 793 total spaces with licensed child care providers. While these numbers leave nearly a quarter of local kids without care, Franges said this is still likely a significant overestimate of how many slots are actually available to local families.

Importantly, the study looked at capacity in child care centers but not the number of children they are functionally serving. Franges said many centers are not utilizing their full capacity because of a lack of staffing. Last June, 88% of centers said they were not fully staffed with many saying they were down at least two people.

Franges said another factor is that four licensed in-home child care providers have closed since data was collected last fall, further reducing available slots. Franges said seven in-home providers have shuttered since 2020, leaving just seven total in the valley.

“These family childcare home providers are aging out and they are just not being replaced,” Franges said.

Caption: Only 23% of local infants are in formal child care, according to a survey conducted by First Impressions of Routt County. (First Impressions of Routt County/Courtesy)

The lack of availability leaves some families without access to child care and many others with a child care plan that is less than ideal. Comments from parents in the study show many want to consider factors like the location, available hours, CPR certification and whether their child is happy with a provider, but the decision is often reduced to who has space.

“More than half of the families say that their current arrangement is not their first choice,” Franges said. “We want our programs to be interested in quality, we want to have this ‘oh, I am going to choose this center because it is a level five,’ not ‘there are people breathing there, we’ll go with that one.”

Staffing struggles are caused by two issues Franges said: Low compensation for early childhood education teachers and a lack of housing these workers could afford. Franges said ECE teachers were making about $17.55 an hour in 2022, a rate that is $2.50 per hour lower than what is deemed a living wage in Routt County for a single adult with no kids ($20.06 per hour).

The challenge to simply raising pay for these workers is that child care is unaffordable for families as it is, with many spending somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000 on child care per year, per child for formal care.

“The real issue with this is that the $20,000 to $25,000 a year isn’t enough for these child care centers to sustain,” Franges said in a presentation to Steamboat Springs City Council on Tuesday. “The true cost of care is somewhere around $150 a day per kid. Centers cannot charge that, nobody can afford that. … Child care is not a lucrative business, it is a service.”

In response to a question from Council member Steve Muntean about what to do about child care issues, Franges said it is a service that needs to be subsidized in some way. First Impressions already does this to a certain degree through tuition assistance and other support. Still, other communities have dedicated funding streams to support their local early childhood education network.

Will building a new center help?

Caption: A rendering of a potential child care and housing development near the Steamboat Springs Community Center. (City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy)

After Franges’ presentation to council on Tuesday, the city got an update on a project to build a new child care center and perhaps more importantly, dedicated housing for ECE workers.

The project, a partnership with Routt County, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the state’s Office of Public, Private Partnerships, would add eight classrooms for infants and toddlers, two for preschool and 36 new housing units. Nine of those units would be reserved for snowplow drivers for CDOT, but the rest would be reserved for child care workers — both those working in the new facility or other providers locally.

The project is on CDOT-owned land adjacent to the Steamboat Springs Community Center and is currently estimated to cost about $40 million total — $10 million for the child care part and $30 million for the housing. Exactly how the project is paid for is a conversation between partners that will continue through the summer, said Winnie DelliQuadri, the city’s special projects and intergovernmental services manager.

In addition to upfront costs, the child care center would likely need public funds each year to be viable. In 2022 it was estimated at roughly $250,000 to $350,000 a year in subsidy, but DelliQuadri said Tuesday this could need to be as high as $750,000 a year depending how the center operated.

“I think we need to be realistic about what the actual budget is and what it is going to take,” DelliQuadri said. “We’re not quite far enough to be able to give you a really good financial picture.”

If the project proceeds, DelliQuadri said construction likely wouldn’t happen until 2026. Council members Brian Swintek and Dakotah McGinlay noted they may need to line up a funding mechanism before 2026, a process that would require a public vote if it were to install a new tax or child care district.

“If there is dedicated funding, it would need to be an action by city council either through some additional tax — a sin tax or an impact fee,” City Manager Gary Suiter said, noting those options would likely require a public vote. “Otherwise you are looking at [the] general fund.” 

Top Photo Caption: A rendering of a potential child care and housing development that would be built in partnership with the city of Steamboat Springs, Routt County CDOT and the state's Office of Public Private Partnerships. (City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy)


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