Sonoma County child care advocates eye new local sales tax measure
Years of wildfires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic have raised the obstacles facing Sonoma County’s dwindling child care providers, but a new political coalition is aiming to boost the shorthanded network via a new tax measure.
Our Kids Our Future, a Santa Rosa-based campaign that formed in July 2021, is leading a push to put a quarter-cent, countywide sales tax on the ballot in November.
Revenue from the tax, which the group projects to be $22 million annually, will go towards easing access to child care and child health care, both critical issues well before the pandemic.
“The need is pretty universal, it doesn’t matter if you have kids or not,” said Ananda Sweet, Our Kids Our Future’s board president. “Even if you can afford child care, child care is still really hard to find, there’s an access issue.”
The county has 490 operating child care facilities, down 21% from before the pandemic. It has lost 52% of available child care slots, however, since March 2020, according to Melanie Dodson, executive director at the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County (4Cs), a nonprofit that offers early childhood services for families and tracks local industry data.
A chief driver of the challenges facing the beleaguered early child care industry is its inability to retain employees because of low wages, according to local experts including Dodson.
“The average (early child care) worker is lucky if they make $14 an hour,” said Angie Dillon-Shore, executive director of First 5, a local child and family services agency.
The high cost of living in the North Bay and additional expenses that come if they have children of their own spur many early child care workers leave for more stable, well-paying jobs like those in the hospitality industry or in the K-12 education system, Dillon-Shore said.
“They leave the career they did out of passion and love and interest in child development,” Dillon-Shore said.
The pandemic further stressed the industry, as child care providers suddenly found themselves on the front lines as essential workers. Many veteran workers retired as a result, Dodson said.
Providers found themselves struggling with a reduced workforce and reduced capacity, while trying to meet legal staffing requirements, said Dodson.
Under the proposed tax measure’s language, First 5, with support from an advisory council, would administer the the funds raised by the quarter cent sales tax.
The revenue would be divided with 60% going to support pay for employees, workforce growth and expansion of the child care network as a whole. The remaining 40% would support perinatal and early childhood mental health, pediatric screening and treatment, and assisting children facing issues like homelessness, according to Our Kids Our Future.
Members of the advisory council, representing parents and early childhood professionals, would be appointed by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
First 5 Sonoma County was first established in the late 1990s as an agency under the county’s health services department, as part of a statewide initiative to tackle the harms of smoking and handle tobacco tax funding. In 2019, First 5 became independent from the county and operates with a nine-member commission.
While California’s tobacco tax has provided the bulk of that funding, that revenue stream has dwindled from about $6 million annually to $3 million in recent years, Dillon-Shore said.
First 5 has been using reserves to sustain services but will hit its “fiscal cliff” in 2025 without a new revenue source, Dillon-Shore said. She added that the organization does pursue other funding options like grants to help cover costs.
First 5 is not part of the tax-measure’s campaign, but Dillon-Shore has personally endorsed the effort, according to Our Kids Our Future’s website.
The proposal is the latest to seek a countywide hike on sales taxes.
Since 2016 at least eight sales tax measures have come before Sonoma County voters, including the quarter-cent sales tax for mental health services (Measure O) and transportation sales tax (Measure DD) both of which passed in November 2020.
In March that same year, voters rejected the half-cent sales tax for fire protection (Measure G) and the 30-year extension of a quarter-cent sales tax for SMART (Measure I).
Dan Drummond, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association, said it illustrated how unpredictable voter appetite for tax measures can be. He questioned whether the steady stream of tax measures was the right way to fund public services.
“It’s just a nonstop parade of services that are not being provided by the government, and its another nickel here, its another dime there,” said Drummond. “We need all these things. My concern is the lack of responsibilities from the elected officials who manage the revenues that we have.”