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Her son, Lionel, is still under a year old, so Kayla Ellis is glad she has had the chance to step back from her hairdressing work and spend some time as a stay-at-home mom.

But even if she went back to work part time, the Santa Rosa mother, 23, figures all of her pay would go right into child care, anyway.

Her husband's job as a Dish Network technician pays well, Ellis said during an outing with Lionel at their neighborhood park. But still, "I struggle big time," she said. "It's just expensive to live here."

Santa Rosa's comparatively high cost-of-living isn't exactly news. But is it enough to warrant recognition as a horrible place to have a child — seventh worst in the country?

That's what they would have you believe at the Daily Beast — an online news source founded by Tina Brown, who also is editor of Newsweek and former editor of New Yorker and Vanity Fair — which recently placed Santa Rosa among the "15Worst Cities to Have a Baby."

The Beast combined cost estimates for baby's first year with median household incomes in 40 metropolitan statistical areas around the nation to help develop its rankings, taking into account four additional factors for each city: the number of obstetric/gynecology practitioners, percentage of population under 5 years old, average commute time and the number of playgrounds per 10,000 people.

New York City earned first — or, really, worst — place, followed by Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, Hagerstown, Md., and Worcester, Mass., in the five spots at the top, aka the bottom.

It gave Santa Rosa slightly more favorable treatment than Miami but suggested that Modesto, while bad, was not as unappealing as Santa Rosa, "the city designed for living."

The Beast used $32,000 as the estimated cost of a baby's first year, including increased energy use and the cost of an additional bedroom, as calculated by Redfin, a real estate web site. That's about 52 percent of the average household's income, according to the Daily Beast.

Public airing of the list — which includes San Francisco, Boston, Portland and Chicago — has opened the door to local debate that has critics bashing Santa Rosa for everything from gangs and graffiti to schools that some contend don't make the grade.

"It's awful," said Brandi Ramos, who has a 1-year-old and a baby on the way. She says the presence of gangs, prostitution, drugs and graffiti near and around her south Santa Rosa neighborhood has her rethinking how long she'll stay.

But defense of the city has been spirited, as well, with many citing the limited criteria used to determine which cities were included on the list and the failure of its creators to consider a host of factors that draw folks to the area.

"It's more than just about money when you're raising your kids," said Santa Rosa attorney Jenica Hutchison. "It's about community ... and we really love our community here and the ability to travel to the beach within half an hour and to the snow. You get life experiences from that."

Kat Hollowell, publicity chairwoman for the Santa Rosa Mother's Club and mother of a 2-year-old and 4-month-old, said parenting groups in the area offer valuable support to those raising some of the 4,593 babies the county says were born in the city last year.

There's an abundance of family-friendly events to attend, including last Sunday's Wunderkammer near Railroad Square, which, in addition to "people dressed up in funky, Victorian, circus-punk outfits," had a kids carnival, breastfeeding area and changing facilities, she said.

"I love Santa Rosa," Hollowell said. "We choose Northern California, and we know it's going to be expensive ... or everyone would live here."

Collette Michaud, founder and chief executive of the Sonoma County Children's Museum, echoed Hollowell. She said the desirability of most cities on the Beast's list undercut its legitimacy.

As for Santa Rosa, "I would say, for me, the number one intangible is the access to green space," Michaud said. "Really, from almost anywhere, within 5 minutes you can almost be in complete green space, and not in sight of a neighborhood."

There also are abundant public parks, including 53 city parks with playgrounds, in addition to what's available at schools — though the Beast, which consulted the Trust for Public Lands for playground statistics, was unable to locate any.

"Howarth Park is like ... how anybody could ever go there and say it's a bad place to raise a child, I don't know," said Melissa Rion, a financial attorney who decided to have children once she and her husband relocated from Boston and found they actually could afford to own a home.

Santa Rosa's high costs are real, however. An affordability index published last year by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago think tank, ranked Sonoma County the second-least affordable county in the Greater Bay Area because of its housing and transportation costs — even though an oft-cited Coldwell Banker Real Estate ranking puts six of the nation's 10 cities with the most expensive housing in other Bay Area counties.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that 16percent of children in Sonoma County live in poverty, compared to 23 percent statewide. The National Center for Children in Poverty says that 22 percent of children nationwide live in poverty.

Infant child care in Sonoma County last year cost an average $1,014 a month per child — more than $12,000 a year, said Carol Simmons, coordinator for the Sonoma Child Care Planning Council. Moreover, there's an estimated shortage of 876 infant child care spaces as of 2011, Simmons said.

"The other piece of information that we had last calculated in our needs assessment was that, in Sonoma County, child care costs can comprise 25 to 34percent of a family's income, which is relevant," she said.

The county's 2012 cost of living was calculated at 21 percent above the U.S. average, according to the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

But the U.S. Census Bureau cites a median household income of $64,343 for the county over the years 2007 to 2011, and $60,850 for Santa Rosa, about 15 percent more than the U.S. average, partially offsetting the higher cost of living.

Home prices reflect, in part, schools that rate well, a relatively low crime rate, below-average unemployment, outdoor recreational opportunities and other cultural attributes favorable to raising children, said Matt Liedtke, research project coordinator for the Economic Development Board.

But housing costs remain below neighboring Marin County, EDB Director Ben Stone said.

The "Worst Cities" list is too simplistic to capture the whole picture, ultimately defined by a person's individual priorities.

Sonoma County Public Health Officer Lynn Silver Chalfin faulted the Beast's use of OB/GYNs as a measure of quality health care when the city hosts "one of the best family practice residencies in the country" and so many the children born here are delivered by family practice doctors.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranks Sonoma County overall as 12th in the state for health outcomes. Its infant mortality rate is below the state average, and the breast-feeding rate is above average, according to the California Department of Health Services.

While issues of economic security and employment need to be everyone's concern, "we stand by this as being a good place to raise a child, even though it is expensive," Chalfin said.

"Santa Rosans, unite," Rion said. "We are not taking this lying down."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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