The La Crosse County Board is continuing to explore multiple possibilities to support child care initiatives using federal COVID relief money.
On Wednesday morning, the Executive Committee reviewed and acted on three proposals that would support child care providers and school districts throughout the county, though at this time it’s unclear which ones — or if all of them — will eventually be funded.
At the meeting, the committee approved moving forward with a $696,000 proposal from the School District of La Crosse to develop a neighborhood child care center that would serve school staff and low-income families.
Additionally, the committee voted to postpone a $2.9 million proposal from child care providers and another plan that reserves $1 million for other school districts in La Crosse County to operate child care centers similar to La Crosse schools. Those items would come back in August for action.
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Since this spring, the board has been navigating how it should spend $3.3 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to bolster child care in the community. That’s a dollar amount the board originally earmarked for the cause, among a number of other categories.
Debate has largely centered around making sure existing child care businesses in the county aren’t hurt by other initiatives.
That remains the concern of some when it comes to the proposal from the School District of La Crosse.
On Wednesday, some supervisors still felt helping the district open up its own child care facility would take employees away from existing businesses in the community that are already struggling with workforce issues. But others disagreed, saying the exact impact can’t be assumed.
The La Crosse district is specifically asking for help to open up a daycare in targeted neighborhoods, where half of the children served would be from low-income families, and the other half would be children of school district staff.
This would be a three-year pilot program, and it would be operated out of existing district facilities, though some remodeling is needed.
La Crosse schools first proposed the project in April. And with the approval of the Executive Committee, the proposal now heads to the full County Board next week for the third time.
The past two referrals were largely to allow for child care providers in the area to present an idea of their own, which was presented by a group last week.
The providers argued that without first building a sustainable way to increase and retain child care workers, adding more daycares would only cause them harm.
In their much larger plan, which has been given the title “Building a Sustainable Workforce,” the county would help pay for one-time employee incentives, training and development grants.
On Wednesday, officials said they still had many questions about the proposal, specifically on the size and scope of the project, and on who would administer the program.
“I can’t endorse it as it is now,” supervisor Randy Erickson said, describing it as a “complex” proposal.
Some supervisors suggested breaking the proposal apart and doing independent grants for different pieces of it.
County staff said they similarly had questions about the process of executing the proposal, but said so far, the plan fits within the ARPA spending guidelines.
At $2,968,600, this project would eat up most of the allocated funds.
The proposal was referred unanimously by the Executive Committee for 30 days.
The third project the committee reviewed was a plan to reserve $1 million for other school districts in La Crosse County to essentially replicate the School District of La Crosse’s child care plan.
Although no other district in the county has expressed interest to the board in pursuing such a project, the funds would be ready for any that do. Interim county administrator Jane Klekamp described it as a “chicken and egg proposition.”
The school district would need to have a physical location to operate the child care program at, and half of the families served would need to be receiving state subsidies for child care. Additionally, those working at the school child care center would need to be making at least $15 an hour with benefits, and the district must develop a plan to make the program sustainable.
Some officials expressed worry about the financial implications of approving this funding without knowing if the other child care proposals would be approved.
If the full $1 million isn’t used, staff said, the county could reallocate the funds to another project that fits within the spending guidelines of the ARPA funding.
Additionally, Klekamp emphasized that the Executive Committee will serve as the oversight for these programs, meaning even though the funding was approved, the details of how it was spent will still get another round of review.
“Everything will come back here, and if something isn’t working, you can change it,” Klekamp said.
Still, the committee voted to refer the proposal for 30 days as well.
All three proposals would exceed the county’s original $3.3 million allocated for child care, meaning if all three were approved, either ARPA funds would need to be shifted or other funding sources identified.
In other action
Other ARPA items the Executive Committee took action on:
- It was approved to reserve $2 million for a “Stormwater Infrastructure Grant Fund,” which will help municipalities improve stormwater systems. This was identified as a need because of the increasing amount of heavy rains that current infrastructure can’t sustain.
- In order to give staff more time to get accurate estimates, an allocation of $1.5 million to install solar panels on county buildings was denied. The plan isn’t squashed, and instead, staff is expected to return next month with updated figures. “It will come back bigger and better sometime soon,” board chair Monica Kruse said. Additionally, the county is ditching the addition of installing geothermal technology because it’s not expected to have an impressive return on investment.