Changes in zoning, partnering with the San Carlos Elementary School District and creating a startup guide for potential child care providers are among the steps San Carlos officials pegged as priorities this week in an effort to boost the number of child care spaces available in the city.

The issue has been a focus for officials in cities across San Mateo County, and rose to the surface for the San Carlos City Council in 2017 after a report estimated a shortage of some 640 child care spaces in the city. In the summer of 2019, the council reprioritized the topic, and members of the city’s child care committee as well as city staff have in recent months been studying potential rules and financing options that could address the challenges child care providers and families are facing, according to a staff report.

In September, the council unanimously approved a measure to exempt child care providers serving the general public from traffic impact fees, which are based on a calculation of the number of car trips expected to accompany the use.

Having voiced support for homing in on the issue at previous City Council meetings, Councilwoman Sara McDowell expressed gratitude to staff and her fellow councilmembers for dedicating time to expanding child care in the city. Though she acknowledged the complexity of the issue affected by new state laws and subject to the high cost of land in the city, McDowell emphasized the urgency of the problem for those who are looking for child care spaces for their children now, a problem she could remember clearly from her own experiences.

“That’s an incredible strain on a family and I can guarantee you there are several parents here in San Carlos going to bed tonight feeling the exact same way,” she said, according to a video of the meeting.

Senior Planner Andrea Mardesich said research done by San Mateo County officials has shown those hoping to open a new commercial daycare center in the city face an average cost of $43,000 per space offered at the facility. Though a living wage for an adult has been estimated at $33/hour, the average hourly wage for workers at child care facilities is well below that level, said Mardesich, who noted 60% to 80% of centers’ costs are attributed to labor and, in addition, child care and operators are reporting high staff turnover rates.

Because the costs are passed onto parents, they pay an average monthly cost of $1,358 for each preschool-age space at a commercial daycare facility and an average monthly cost of $1,194 for each preschool-age space at a center operated out of a provider’s residence, also known as an in-home or family child care facility, said Mardesich.

In an effort to address child care providers’ concerns about the cost of land in the city, councilmembers discussed exploring zoning updates to allow child care in parts of the city where it’s currently not allowed as well as the possibility of allowing child care facilities in the city’s parks. The San Carlos Elementary School District is in the process of drafting a facilities management plan. Partnering with the district to scope whether any of its surplus land could be home to child care facilities in the future was another possibility officials supported.

Also included among the strategies staff prepared for study were waiving fees commercial child care providers in the city are required to pay, reducing parking and traffic management requirements and expediting the processing of applications for daycare providers. Officials voiced support for exploring requirements for those proposing large developments to designate space for child care or provide it as a community benefit to the city.

Given the complexity of the challenges child care providers and families face, Councilwoman Laura Parmer-Lohan urged officials to take on several of the strategies identified at their Monday meeting and to also explore ways they could ensure child care continues to be provided in the long term. Because the community is growing, Parmer-Lohan acknowledged the demand for child care will remain strong, noting they would likely encounter challenges with many of the strategies up for review.

“I would like us to … capture the low-hanging fruit,” she said. “But I also think we need to push it a bit further to try to figure out really how we’re going to increase capacity in a meaningful way so that it grows with our community.”

Mardesich noted small, in-home child care providers offering up to eight spaces are allowed by right, and the city currently requires in-home facilities with up to 14 spaces to obtain a minor use permit. But Senate Bill 234, a new state law to take effect in January, will stop the city from requiring providers to get a minor use permit as well as collect permit fees for both types of in-home child care facilities.

Though Councilman Adam Rak supported exploring reduced fees for commercial day care centers, he advocated for officials to consider whether they could require some larger, commercial child care providers who can afford it to offer spaces at rates affordable to low-income families.

“If we’re giving a benefit, we should be getting a benefit back to the community,” he said. “I think there’s ways we can do things to give back to the community as well.”

Vice Mayor Ron Collins agreed with his fellow councilmembers that expanding child care opportunities is a priority, but he cautioned them against directing staff from exploring every possible strategy to ensure they are giving each one the proper attention. He advocated for adding child care as a priority in citywide vision documents, as well as working with other cities focused on the same set of issues.

“This problem isn’t going away and it’s getting increasingly difficult for people to not only move here but to raise a family here,” he said. “I think we really need to develop a strategy where we’re engaging our neighboring cities or other cities in the county.”

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