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Poorest families likely to feel pinch of child-care cuts

Starting today, thousands of Pinellas County's poorest families might have to pay a bit more to cover child-care costs.

Facing a deficit of more than $2-million in its $25-million subsidized child-care budget, the county's Early Learning Coalition has cut its subsidy rates for day care and after-school programs through June 30, when a new budget year begins.

Child-care providers, who stand to lose thousands of dollars a month, can either absorb the reduction or ask parents to cover it.

Guy Cooley, who administers Pinellas's subsidy program through Coordinated Child Care of Pinellas, said the decision to slice repayment rates by 5 percent for preschool children and 20 percent for school-age kids amounted to the "devil's choice." Spreading the pain among about 8,000 families seemed less onerous than the alternative of tossing children out of their care centers, he said.

"If you kick 1,200 kids out, those are families that probably have to quit their jobs," Cooley said. "You economically devastate 1,200 families."

Because letters to parents went out late Monday, parent feedback hadn't begun to pour in to Coordinated Child Care or the day care centers. But providers, who learned of the news a day earlier, lit up the phone lines with their frustration and upset Monday and Tuesday.

Many called one another, trying to figure out how they would deal with the sudden change to their budgets.

Jenifer McKee, owner of Academy of Learning on 40th Street N, said she had heard several say they will ask parents to pay the difference. For preschool children that comes to about $5 a week. For school-age children it's about $12 a week.

"I'm not sure how that's going to play with families," said McKee, noting that the amount is not small to parents who live at or below the poverty level. "I have not made a decision to pass that along. Historically, I have tried not to do that."

With about 50 children on subsidies, Academy of Learning stands to lose about $2,000 a month.

"We need to find out where Pinellas can find this money," McKee said.

Already, the county's waiting list for subsidized child care stands at about 2,000, with services frozen last October to low-income families who do not qualify for state priority funding. The state requires that children in protective custody, and those whose parents participate in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families work program, get the services first.

Judy Miller, owner of Kids Planet Preschool on 54th Avenue N, said she would turn to the parents.

"I, as a provider, am not able to take the brunt of it totally," said Miller, who sits on the panel that implemented the rate reductions.

She said parent surveys have shown they would rather pay a bit more than lose their child care services entirely. Nobody likes the decision, Miller said, but it's less intrusive for everyone involved.

The Pinellas Early Learning Coalition received about $1-million less for child-care subsidies this year than last year. Because of a surplus last budget year, though, it had more children than usual placed in subsidized care, Cooley explained.

The state would not let the county increase its parent fees, he said, so the financial pressures started early. Then, as spending began, the historical rate at which children drop out of programs - about 400 each month - did not occur. In January, for instance, just 100 kids withdrew.

The county Juvenile Welfare Board contributed about $800,000, making the problem less pressing than it could have been. But the coalition had to act, Cooley said, to prevent major troubles in the summer.

He expected the situation to disappear with the new budget year, which begins in July.

Art O'Hara, executive director of R'Club Child Care, said he hoped the stress imposed on care centers and families won't be missed by the larger community. R'Club, which serves about 1,300 children all over the county with subsidized care, stands to lose about $213,000 over the next four months.

The organization has not decided how to cope.

"This should make some people uncomfortable," O'Hara said, specifically mentioning county employers. "It's not just day care. It's work support. Without good, quality child care, it's hard for people to focus on work."

At least one provider complained that the centers were being asked to deal with budget cuts while the organization that oversees the subsidies had not reduced administrative salaries. Cooley acknowledged that option had not been considered during other budget trims, which included mini grants and training.

But Wilson, of the state Agency for Workforce Innovation, noted that the coalition had taken other steps, such as reviewing each child's eligibility for subsidized care and trying to shift children into other unaffected programs, such as voluntary prekindergarten, if they qualify.

"They haven't just said, "We're going to slam the providers,' " Wilson said. "It's a hard thing, because somebody is going to suffer. . . . The coalition cannot spend money they do not have."

Only one other county - Brevard, on the Atlantic coast - has faced similar cuts. Its leaders chose to eliminate services to school-age children, said Gladys Wilson, deputy director of the state Agency for Workforce Innovation. Miami-Dade County threatened similar action but got a cash infusion from its Children's Services Council.

Hillsborough County's early learning coalition, which raised its own budget concerns as early as July, has not seen its worries come to fruition.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (813) 269-5304 or