Appointing a Cabinet-level staff member to coordinate and develop day care programs and allowing family day care centers in residential areas are among the steps Howard County can take to improve the quality and quantity of child care, a citizens committee said this week.
The 18-member task force appointed late last year to study child care issues is putting the finishing touches on a report that is scheduled to be forwarded to County Executive Elizabeth Bobo Tuesday. Bobo had asked the group, which includes consumers and providers of child care, to make specific recommendations in time to be considered during the preparation of next year's county budget.
At a meeting Monday night, task force members agreed that having a full-time child care coordinator within Bobo's administration is perhaps the most critical of all possible county actions.
They said that having a visible advocate of child care is important not only for its symbolic value, but because of a sizable work load as the government expands its role in a field that touches the lives of so many county residents.
Duties such a staff member might perform include working with businesses to make them aware of federally approved plans they can use in which employees can save money on child-care expenses through payroll deductions and low-cost loans they could use to build on-site day care centers. The staff member could also develop a public information campaign to increase the number of licensed day care providers and improve the county's child care referral service.
James Jones, an assistant to County Administrator William Eakle, said that if such a position were created, it would pay $27,000 to $29,000 and be similar to the transportation coordinator job Bobo created last year.
The committee was more divided on the question of whether it would be appropriate -- and legal -- for the government to force town house associations and homeowners' groups to allow their neighbors to provide at-home day care for up to six children at a time.
Some housing developments have covenants in their by-laws that ban residents from operating businesses in their homes. The issue of whether day care should be exempted from the ban arose recently in the village of Harper's Choice in Columbia, where some homeowners are attempting to close down a family day care operation that they say violates their covenants.
John Ibister, an attorney representing the Howard County United Way on the commission, said he felt uncomfortable telling other property owners what to do. He suggested that the committee instead urge community groups "to be receptive" to allowing family day care in their neighborhoods, but he was outnumbered by members who wanted to take a strong stand.
After more than an hour of debate, 12 of the members present voted to include in their report a recommendation that Bobo draft legislation that would allow family day care centers "as a matter of right" in residential areas.
"We're talking about business and we're trying to be businesslike, but this is also an emotional issue for a lot of people," said Lisa Goshen, a member of the Association of Community Services.
The committee's chairman, Joyce Demmitt, said the final report will be organized in short-term, medium-range, and long-term goals. Other planned recommendations include:Increasing the amount the county contributes toward state-issued child care vouchers for low-income families so they cover 90 percent of the going rate for child care in the county. Holding a job fair for prospective day care providers that would include information on bookkeeping, training and support groups. Doing a study on the need for day care centers for disabled, sick and very young children. Appointing an advisory committee to work with the child care coordinator.
Having an amnesty period for unlicensed day care providers in conjunction with a public information campaign. Updating county zoning regulations to make it easier for day care centers to get permits and other paperwork needed to open.
Increasing the budget for the library's visiting storyteller program.