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City Council to Tackle Growing Demand for Daycare

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

November 28 -- Scouring Santa Monica last spring for daycare services, Jela Ellefson soon learned she should have started looking earlier to enroll her toddler. How much earlier, though, came as a shock to the new mother.

Some parents, she soon learned, register for daycare before their babies are even born.

"Some daycare services have waiting lists of 12 and 18 months," said Ellefson, who when not looking after year-and-a-half-old Emma is a USC grad student buried in books.

And with daycare in Santa Monica costing between $200 and $250 each week, Ellefson and her husband, Ben, an architect, have found that “it’s like renting another apartment or paying for a car."

“This is something, in my opinion, that seems a little out of control," said Ellefson, who has become immersed in the search, going so far as to compile a spreadsheet of services.

Ellefson is not alone.

In fact, there are enough parents like the Ellefsons that the Santa Monica City Council Tuesday night is expected to take dramatic, and some say controversial, action to help stem the demand and costs for child care, which has become critical especially for children under five.

While not the first California city to charge developers fees to help build new childcare facilities -- and help offset the demand generated by the new workers and tenants -- Santa Monica may end up charging higher rates than any other municipality in the state.

"We are being watched by other cities," said Sarah Lejeun, a senior planner who helped formulate the fee calculations.

Under the proposed plan, Santa Monica would charge developers three to five times the amount charged by other cities, such as San Francisco. Developers would pay per square foot depending on use, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars going to the City to build more childcare facilities, officials said.

"This ordinance is aimed at the nexus between how new development impacts demand for child care in Santa Monica,” Lejeun said.

Laid out in an in-depth study performed by consultants, that nexus is the basis for the City's development fees she said.

According to the law, developers of office buildings larger than 7,500 square feet would pay the most, at $5.27 per square foot. Developers of retail spaces that exceed that density threshold would pay $3.77 per square foot, while hotels can expect to pay $2.64.

Although the City continues to suffer from a lack of housing, especially affordable, builders of large residential projects can expect a flat fee of $111 per square foot.

The heftiest chunk of the developer's fees would then go for childcare facilities for those who live and work in the City, according to the staff report.

After years of work on the issue, childcare advocates, such as Patti Oblath, said the proposal would be a significant milestone in stemming demand brought on by development.

"Creating that linkage (between new development and child care development fees) is critical," said Oblath, an associate director for the non-profit Connections for Children and co-chair of the City's Child Care and Early Education Task Force, which recommended the changes.

"For a family of two children, you could be looking at paying $2,400 a month," said Oblath, citing a Department of Education market rate survey by zip codes in Santa Monica.

An average fee at a facility per family is between $1,100 and $1,350 every month for children one to two-years-old, she said. For two to five-year-olds, that rate is between $840 and $1,100. The prices are comparable, if not slightly lower, for licensed private facilities run out of local homes.

As a major destination and job Mecca, Santa Monica boasts better facilities than most cities, but there are trade-offs, Oblath said.

"Compared to countywide, rates in Santa Monica are about 30 percent higher," she said, adding that the high costs makes if difficult for families, even white-collar professionals, to afford something they can't live without.

Oblath – whose non-profit assists Westside families navigate childcare – said the City's law would standardize fees that have been worked out through individual development agreements for close to three decades now.

"Rather than fight for development agreement after development agreement, we would build it in," Oblath said.

Yet not all are convinced the fees are the right way to go and fear they could discourage new development, especially housing.

"I just think this would drive the cost of housing higher and higher," said Mayor Bob Holbrook, who said Monday he would not be voting for the law as it stands. "I think it's way over the top."

While Holbrook said he would be in favor of amending the law for a "more reasonable" fee rate, he feels the City is moving in the wrong direction by taxing developers.

"I'm no right-winger, but at some point, you need to take care of your own family," he said.

Several other council members, however, said they would vote for the proposed plan.

"I supported the child care last time and anticipate voting for this again," said Council member Kevin McKeown.

While the fee is not expected to drive down the price of day care, only curb the rising cost, advocates hope it will help families like the Ellefson find a facility and slow the growing demand.

"Parents are at the mercy of the daycare providers now," said Jela, who is getting ready for a host of exams.

To her, and thousands of other working families, paying sky-high fees is not an option when it comes to someone they live for.

"We all just want what is best for our child," she said.





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