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Child care providers join together to stem costs

Growing expenses

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Bruce Thauvette, 2, scoots around the play area Jan. 30 at Learning Adventure Child Care in Cortland.

Stephanie Manning is a working mom who says her family must budget carefully to afford full-time child care for their 21-month-old daughter, Adelaide.

She was picking Adelaide up from Here We Grow Child Care on Homer Avenue in Cortland on Thursday afternoon. It is one of the two centers run by the YWCA, and Adelaide, a curly blonde-haired toddler with a big grin, has been going there since she was 4 months old.

“Even with being a professional it’s hard to afford,” Manning said. “And we only have one so adding to that cost is exponential.”

However, child care centers cannot keep up with rising costs, most recently an increase in the state’s minimum wage, said Kelly Tobin, the YWCA’s executive director. They don’t want to pass the cost down to the parents, so three Cortland-area child care providers have formed a task force to address the issue.

Besides Tobin, the group includes:

• Jenny Robinson, executive director of the Child Development Center on Pendleton Street.

• Jami Bistocchi, child care director at the YWCA.

• Elin Pantas, deputy director of the Child Development Center.

• Stephanie Fritz, director of the SUNY Cortland child care center.

• Sue Dale-Hall, executive director of the Child Development Council, a child care referral agency for Tompkinsand Cortland counties.

• Bob Haight, director of the Cortland County Chamber of Commerce.

But after a year of meetings, they’re stymied. They’ve met with state legislators and they’ve searched the nation to find an affordable child care model with no luck.

The system needs an overhaul, Tobin said.

Access to quality child care is an economic development issue, said Assembly Member Barbara Lifton (DIthaca), who has spoken with the group. She wants to help child care facilities, but providers have not made a single, uniform request, and the state has many needs to balance.

“We’re beginning the budget process and hearing dire things about how many billion dollars plus of a budget gap (we have), and where are we going to get the revenues given what’s happened with the state and local taxes and federal reform it’s harder for the state to raise money,” Lifton said.

State Sen. Jim Seward (R-Milford) said he wants to explore expanding the state subsidies above the $7 million increase to $806 million that Gov. Andrew Cuomo recommended.

Seward said he also supports finding a way to offset some of the mandated minimum wage increase for child-care centers, saying there is precedent for doing that for agencies that serve the developmentally disabled.

“I think the time has come to do the same for child care staff because they are woefully underpaid for … the important work they do,” Seward said.

Staffing accounts for about 85 percent of a day care center’s costs — and parent tuition about 90 percent of its revenue. Cortland centers, typically costing $200 a week, would need to raise the price 12 percent — $20 to $25 a week — to keep up with an increase in the minimum wage to $12.50 an hour by 2021 and $15 an hour sometime beyond that, Robinson said.

To put it in perspective, data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics show child care workers in Central New York earn a median of $9.72 an hour. An increase to $12.50 an hour is nearly a 29 percent raise.

That was a key reason the SUNY Cortland Child Care Center closed an infant room last June, Fritz said. Infants are more expensive to care for than older children, she said, costing about $18,000 a year for a room. The center could reduce benefits, but that’s a perk that keeps many employees, she added.

She hears parents liken their child care costs to a mortgage payment. Child care, at $200 a week, can eat more than 20 percent of a typical household’s income — $50,910 a year in Cortland county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The situation isn’t unique to Cortland County. Cuomo in his budget address last month called for a state-level task force of care providers, Department of Social Services representatives, business officials and others to figure out how to keep child care affordable.

Lifton said she is also looking to help nonprofits cope with the minimum wage increase.

“But I can’t stand up and hand a letter to the speaker and it happens,” she said. “We need a lot of push from throughout all three parties, to the Assembly members, to senators to the governor, from people statewide, that’s how you push to make things happen.”

Robinson wants people to understand the importance of day care.

“We’re not just baby sitting,” Robinson said. Child care provides an educational atmosphere, preparing Adelaide Manning and the 270 other children at the three centers, for kindergarten and beyond. “It’s bigger than letting parents go to work, we’re providing services for the kids in our care.”

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