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Fee increase leaves day care providers scrambling

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Posted: Tuesday, December 22, 2009 12:00 am

The cost of child care will rise substantially this January for some Arizona providers. An increase in licensing fees will require providers renewing their three-year permits to pay as much as 52 times the previous standard rate of $150.

The increase in fees is a result of a $5 million budget reduction for the Department of Health Services (DHS) – which grants the licenses – passed during the third special session of the state Legislature.

Providers will now pay according to the number of children the capacity of their facility allows them to care for at any given time. A facility with a capacity of, say, five to 10 children will be required to pay $1,000 every three years. Facilities with a capacity of 60 or more children will pay the topmost fee of $7,800.

Jan Vickery, administrator at the Ahwatukee Foothills Montessori Center, said that while she anticipated an increase in fees, she didn’t expect the determined amount to be so expensive, or to be enacted in such a short amount of time.

“I wasn’t worried if they doubled or tripled it,” Vickery said of the new fees. “I didn’t fathom they would raise it by 8,000 percent.”

She said the new expenses will eventually be passed on to parents in the form of increased tuition, a financial burden that may cause parents already struggling in a tough economic environment to withdraw their children from day care.

“People who are making $10 an hour can’t afford an increase,” Vickery said. “You’re going to have a lot of latchkey kids.”

In response to such concerns, the DHS has offered child care providers the opportunity to apply for a government subsidy program that reduces licensing fees by half. The benefit of the federally-funded program, named Empower, is available only once and its participants must agree to certain criteria for learning devised by the DHS.

Laura Oxley, spokeswoman for the Department of Health, said reception to the Empower program as a partial antidote to the increase in fees has been mostly appreciative.

“The vast majority of responses have been gracious,” Oxley said. “It’s not all peaches and cream but there is a lot of appreciation that we tried.”

To participate in the Empower program, child care providers must adhere to a set of 10 academic principles provided by the DHS that limit things like time spent staring at the computer screen and encourage physical activity and nutritious meals.

Kelly Alexander, director of Community Education and Outreach Services at Kyrene School District, said most schools already fulfill these requirements so applying for the federal aid makes sense. But even with the new fees cut in half, Alexander says she still has to find ways to make up for money lost.

“We’re analyzing our budgets and trying to be as conservative as possible,” she said. “We’re really trying hard not to raise our tuition rates. Because of the economy, we know parents are struggling already.”

The increase in licensing fees compounds an already scant budget for public school funding: Arizona is ranked last in spending per-pupil, according to a report issued in July by the U.S. Census Bureau.

However, the licenses of the many facilities that provide child care within the Kyrene School District don’t all expire this year, allowing Alexander to better deal with the fee increases by staggering the true cost. Providers like Vickery that own and, therefore, work off the proceeds of a single facility will be less fortunate.

“Is it fair to impose new fees on facilities that coincidentally expire this year and not on facilities that don’t have to pay until three years from now?” Vickery said. “Others who are competing in the same system have to pay the full amount now.”

Alexander agrees the arrangement is far from ideal, but may have been the only viable option.

“It would have helped to have a graduated system, but we understand that the state budget is not healthy right now. We’re just trying to keep these programs as affordable as possible.”

 

Ahwatukee Foothills resident Robert Oppermann is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. He is a senior at Michigan State University and can be reached at opperm17@msu.edu.

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