Democrats in Westchester County's Board of Legislators are blasting County Executive Robert Astorino over his proposal to increase the parent contribution rate for the subsizied daycare program from 20 percent to 35 percent.
At a press conference Friday at Mount Kisco Child Care Center (MKCCC), Majority Leader Peter Harckham (D-Katonah) argued that raising the rate, which would be in effect for November and December, would cause working parents to pull their children out of programs and possibly quit their jobs in order to look after them.
“We’re talking about the working poor here, folks who are working hard to contribute to the economy," he said. "They want to work, they want to contribute, and we know from past experience that when they lose access to adequate, affordable child care, they make a choice: either put their child in unsafe, unlicensed daycare or they give up work.”
Harckham argued that Astorino has been hostile to child care during his tenure, citing the fact that the parents' contribution rate has steadily risen for the past three years. As a contrast, he noted that the average parent share at the end of 2009 was $86, versus a possible $311 if the 35-percent rate goes into effect.
Saying, “when the county executive did it the first year, you can say it was a misguided budget choice. Two years in a row, it then becomes a very, very concerning policy choice. And now we’re on year 3 of increasing the parent share, and this is a concerted war on child care.”
Harckham was flanked by local daycare providers and parents who benefit from their services.
Dottie Jordan, executive director for MKCCC, warned that the increase will lead to families dropping their child care, and that the change would have negative implications for children in the long run.
“The short-sighted decisions today will mean terrible long-term consequences for our county. Westchester County needs early care education programs to prepare children for the future. The lack of investment for our children will impact their success in the future.’
Supporters of keeping the level where it is argued that it is needed for working parents so that they can contribute to society while having their kids watched properly. They argued that the alternatives would be for parents, having to quit their jobs to watch their kids, to go on public assistance, or if seeking unlicensed daycare.
“They’re motivated, working people who happen to have young children that need to be cared for when they are outside of the home," said Polly Peace, director for Country Childrens Center, which has locations in Bedford Hills, Katonah and Yorktown.
“I am not looking for a hand out, I am looking for a hand up, so please help us out," said Wendy Urbina, a Sleepy Hollow mother who works at MKCCC and has her child enrolled in it.
Clark Robson, a Chappaqua resident and MKCCC board member, noted that the center had a deficit last year partly due to a previous rate increase, and faces another one for this year.
“With further cuts in the county aid over the next several years we don’t really know what we’re going to do. We desperately don’t want to reduce the quality of care. We have a real dilemma and we need help from the county.”
More thn half of MKCCC families have some sort of tuition assistance, according to Jordan, with about 25 percent of those families depending on the county's subsidy, she said.
The 20-percent figure was the number approved by the legislators for the 2012 budget. Astorino has spent much of the year pushing for an increase to the 35-percent level. The county executive's office argues that the increase is necessary because the program does not have enough money and faces a budget deficit.
The Mount Kisco event was one of two held by Democratic legislators to hit Astorino. This week, Vice Chair Lyndon Williams (D-Mount Vernon) held an event at Mount Vernon City Hall to highlight the issue.
“Most decent and compassionate Westchester residents who learn that this Administration makes subsidies for golf a priority over subsidies that keep infants and toddlers from low-income families in safe, regulated day care will find it a disgrace," Williams said in a press release.
Harckham, at his press conference, argued that the program can be paid for another way, citing a projected budget surplus of more than $7 million for the county's Department of Social Services (DSS).
Not so, argues Ned McCormack, Astorino's communications director. He notes that the surplus is still just a projected figure, making it unwise to assume it's viable to use for payment. He also stated that some of the money would have to pay for mandated services such as Medicaid.
"You don't know it's real until the end of the year," he said.
McCormack painted a dire fiscal picture for the program, arguing that the rate increase is better than other alternatives, such as reducing eligibility or closing it.
The Democratic legislators and Astorino have been in court since the spring. In May, the legislature's Democratic leadership filed a lawsuit in state supreme court to stop the proposed increase, and argued that Astorino, along with DSS commisioner Kevin McGuire can't change a figure from an adopted county budget without the legislators' approval. The Democrats were dealt a setback in August when Judge Robert Neary ruled in Astorino's favor. The case has been appealed and is still pending.