POSTED BY BELLINGHAM HERALD
Two years after Bellingham and Whatcom County used funds from the first federal pandemic stimulus measure to help child-care centers stay open, the city is investing money from the most recent COVID-19 relief bill to support those that are still struggling and to train more child-care workers and keep them in the profession. Bellingham City Council members voted unanimously Monday, March 14, to use $1 million from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act to further assist child-care centers through programs being administered by the Opportunity Council, part of a proposed $3 million effort between the city and Whatcom County. “This is really good news. When we make investments in our children, we’re making investments in our community,” said Councilman Dan Hammill.
“We’re addressing economic development, both on the workforce side but also on the family side. This is a social justice issue, in particular for women who are often the caregivers,” Hammill said. Hammill and Councilwoman Hollie Huthman said that getting children ready to start school can make the difference between adults who eventually go to college or learn a trade and find a family-wage job, or whether they end up poor, homeless or imprisoned.
“This is one of the most important investments we can make in early learning and childcare, in getting kids ready for kindergarten, when we’re thinking about 30 years from now and what we want our society to look like,” Huthman said. Both Councilwoman Lisa Anderson and Council President Hannah Stone said in committee discussion Monday that they supported the measure but would abstain from the final vote because each has a conflict of interest. Anderson works at Whatcom Community College, which benefits from some of the funding, and Stone is on the board of the Opportunity Council, which will administer programs funded with American Rescue Plan Act grants.
‘STABILIZE’ CHILD CARE
Whatcom County officials are being asked to contribute $2 million from its American Rescue Plan Act award, said Tara Sundin, economic development manager for the city of Bellingham.
Funds will be used to “stabilize the childcare sector from the sustained impacts caused by COVID, support the costs of compulsory professional development and aid families struggling to keep their childcare,” according to a memo from Sundin and Darby Cowles in the Planning and Community Development Department. “The child-care industry was struggling before COVID, we knew that, and it’s just been further exacerbated by this two-year stretch of COVID-related impacts,” Sundin told the council Committee of the Whole in a presentation. About 10 percent of Whatcom County child-care centers have closed over the past two years, for a net loss of 84 child-care spots, Sundin said. “We need to triple our child-care slots by 2025, just to meet the anticipated needs of the rest of our workforce,” Sundin said.
David Webster, director of early learning and family services at the Opportunity Council, said the money will help struggling centers with short-term needs such as rent payments, fund training programs at Whatcom Community College and Northwest Indian College, and pay for emergency vouchers for families with short-term financial troubles so that they don’t lose their spot in a child-care center. “The last thing you want to do is lose your slot, because if you lose your slot for your child or your children, you’re going to the end of a waiting list line and who knows when you’ll get it back,” Webster said. “We provide emergency vouchers to parents, whether it’s because of illness, relationship disruption, domestic violence, things that kind of put a family’s budget into disarray and threaten their ability to pay for child care, which of course affects the small business that is the child care for not getting paid. Those emergency vouchers help people get over that hump of crisis in their lives without losing the childcare that’s allowing them to go to work every day of other important tasks in their lives,” Webster said.
There are about 100 child-care providers in Whatcom County employing about 650 people, and ranging in size from home-based businesses to large operations with several locations like the Whatcom Family YMCA, Webster said.
Bellingham and Whatcom County have been helping to add child-care facilities in affordable housing developments such as Samish Commons, Mercy Housing and the Opportunity Council’s planned senior-housing project on North Forest Street. “We’ve really been working on that expansion piece,” Sundin said.
Median hourly wage for child care workers was $13 in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. ARPA helps with the short-term needs, but Bellingham, Whatcom County and other agencies are looking for long-term solutions, Sundin said.
“We really need some state and national solutions to help us with providing affordable childcare and for increasing those wages,” she said.
Both Bellingham and Whatcom County have made child care a priority during the pandemic. Nearly 30 Whatcom County child-care providers received CARES Act grants totaling $700,000 in 2020. Whatcom Family YMCA received $295,000, which was the largest single grant under information that Whatcom County provided describing its Whatcom ReStart program. Whatcom County has set aside $13 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for child care over the next two years and earmarked about half that for various programs this year in a budget adjustment measure that passed in late November 2021. “When families have trouble accessing quality child care, everyone suffers — kids, parents, employers,” Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu told The Bellingham Herald in an email. “Right now the childcare system is in crisis, being squeezed by workforce attrition, a capacity deficit and affordability challenges for low- and middle-income parents,” Sidhu said. “The county, in partnership with other jurisdictions, like the city of Bellingham, is looking to use American Rescue Plan funds to both support the workforce and increase capacity. The affordability issue is also important, but right now local governments do not have the resources to provide a comprehensive solution to that issue. We have seen some movement at the state and federal level to address affordability, and I hope that those efforts along with our local investments will markedly improve the child-care situation in Whatcom County,” he said.
Included in the November budget adjustment was $245,000 to add an Office of Child and Family within the Health Department and hire a manager and a child-care program specialist. It’s part of recommendations from the Whatcom County Child and Family Well-Being Task Force, an appointed panel. “We’ll need incentives for people getting into the field because if we don’t have workers, we won’t have child care, said County Councilmember Carol Frazey, the council’s representative on the Child and Family Well-Being Task Force. Its work was just getting started in January 2020 as the County Council approved its Child and Family Action Plan, and the pandemic forced government officials to address immediate child-care needs and delay long-term plans. “Childcare opportunities are an integral component to our economic recovery,” according to the supplemental budget request approved in November. “Without quality, affordable child care, families are unable to resume full-time employment. Having a strong workforce will help the community’s economic recovery.”
POSSIBLE TAX MEASURE
Also under consideration is a possible ballot initiative for a property tax to fund child-care programs, Such a tax is being proposed by a subcommittee within the Child and Family Well-Being Task Force. Committee members told the County Council in a February presentation that a tax of 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation would cost the average property owner $100 a year and generate $8.2 million annually for programs aimed at helping families and children.