Saturday, September 13, 2008

State budget stalemate places Contra Costa's child care system in crisis mode

Rashan Ali finished his Shape Bear this week, cutting out the animal's different body parts and taping them together. The 4-year-old thrives during arts and crafts time at his Richmond child care center.

His mother, Loushinea Lewis, cringes at the thought of her day-care alternative, unreliable baby sitters who plop her son in front of a television all day.

While Republicans and Democrats haggle over the state budget in Sacramento, Lewis waits in San Pablo, knowing the longer the impasse, the stronger the chance that Rashan will return to the TV set.

The budget stalemate has frozen payments to Contra Costa's state subsidized child-care services. Agencies are taking out loans, liquidating assets and dipping into reserves to stem the tide.

Contra Costa Child Care Council, the county's referral center, has taken out two loans, totaling $3 million, and cashed out $400,000 in assets to cover the three months since the fiscal year began. It expects to recoup the money once legislators pass a state budget, however it will likely lose the $6,500 a month in interest payments, said Kate Ertz-Berger, council executive director.

The nonprofit agency can last through mid-October, she estimated.

"This can't go on indefinitely.

"To continue to pay all our providers every month, we need about $1 million a month and that's a lot of money," she said.

Child-care subsidies for low-income families in Contra Costa have taken the biggest Advertisementhit, she said. About 1,000 of her agency's families and 1,600 kids could be affected if the budget stalemate continues through mid-October. A 10 percent cut in child-care funds in the proposed budget led the agency to "tighten our belts" for operational costs, Ertz-Berger said.

The cash flow problem trickles down to child-care providers who have subsidized children.

Brenda Lewis has run Brenda's Kidz Kare in Richmond for two decades. She watches a couple dozen children and more than half are subsidized.

"If I lose all those county people, I would probably fade out after about three months," she said.

After that, Lewis, no relation to Loushinea, would have to take a second job and lay off many of her five employees. Many of them would most likely return to welfare, she said.

"The majority of my parents of subsidized children came off welfare, so they'd have to go back, too," Lewis said.

Loushinea Lewis, a single mother of four, works for the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

"If it goes long enough, I'd be forced to quit my job," she said.

Contra Costa has more than 20 child care centers entirely dependent on state contracts.

Concord Child Care Center has taken a big loan and dipped into reserves to keep its doors open, said Stephanie Ratto, pre-school site supervisor.

The facility, overseeing 158 children from toddler to second-graders, is out of child-care basics like paint and binders.

"We have an open house coming up and we have nothing to showcase," Ratto said.

The ramifications spread beyond finger-painting projects.

"This is really a far-reaching problem when you pull the child-care rug out from underneath the infrastructure," said Ertz-Berger, who traveled to Sacramento on Wednesday to get an update on budget talks.

"Nobody expected it to go this long, and there's no end in sight."

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