Government employees are leaving jobs due to a daycare shortage, causing elected officials to examine the need for county-managed support in Moab.

Eighty-one percent of families in rural Utah are living in areas known as “child care deserts,” according to the Center for American Progress, a nonprofit public policy institute based in Washington, D.C.

Grand County elected officials held a special meeting on July 9 that Grand County Council chair Evan Clapper said was the first-ever informal meeting for elected officials to discuss local issues.

Clapper said the meetings are planned to continue and will help all elected officials to “be on a more similar page.”

“… Often times the council can be out of touch and out of loop, and we want to make an effort to be more aware of what elected officials are dealing with,” Clapper said as the meeting began in the Grand County Council chambers.

“I think this is a great thing. We don’t get to spend a lot of time together as elected officials,” Grand County Sheriff Steven White said.

Grand County Treasurer Chris Kauffman, Grand County Clerk and Auditor Chris Baird, and Grand County Council members Mary McGann, Terry Morse and Curtis Wells were also in attendance.

A common area of interest discussed among elected officials was the shortage of daycare providers for children in Grand County, especially for children under the age of 2. The lack of licensed providers for children has created a crisis in the community and puts children at risk, according to the Grand County Family Support Center and other local organizations working closely with local families.

White said the sheriff’s office “lost” a new administrative assistant last week, in less than six months after being hired, for the lack of child care for her child.

“Has the county ever looked at doing any type of daycare?” White said.

McGann said several people in the community have expressed interest in developing a more comprehensive plan for new daycare options. The local nonprofit Moab Community Childcare was founded in 2016 to bring community members together to create solutions to establishing licensed daycares.

She said she has also spoken with Grand County Community and Economic Development Department Director Zacharia Levine about the shortage and potential ideas for the county to move forward on the issue, she said.

“Zacharia and myself and a small group are getting together in a couple of weeks to look at doing (daycare for children) below the age of 2,” she said.

More than 500 children under the age of 5 live in Grand County, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2018. But with only a handful of daycares in the county, less than 100 children are being cared for by licensed child care providers, and those established providers have no available openings to consistently serve new families, the Utah Department of Health said.

As for funding and a space for a county managed daycare project, she pointed to grants and potential locations within city limits.

“It looks more promising there is a space in the city,” McGann said. She said Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus and Moab Valley Multicultural Center (MVMC) Executive Director Rhiana Medina have also expressed interest in working together on a plan to solve the daycare shortage in the community.

“It’s not just your office — it’s huge. It’s a big deal,” McGann said to White.

White said the administrative assistant had to leave her position at the sheriff’s office when a medical emergency in her family arose; her family was providing her child’s care.

“I just think what we spend on training these people,” White said. “She was getting up to speed … she comes in one day and goes ‘I can’t work, I can’t find daycare.’”

“… We talked once about once of having a daycare for county/city employees where the county pays a portion … but that’s just been a casual conversation,” McGann said. “… I do think there’s momentum to do something like that.”

White suggested offering daycare at a rate people can afford.

“I think it would benefit the county,” White said.

Clapper pointed out the county’s need to create an entire transitional process for people who are arriving in the area to work for the county, and said there are grants the county can apply for to help with funding.

“In terms of the housing, I don’t think there’s a lot of traction right now, but with the high-density housing overlay that we approved, the 300-unit cap has already all been applied for, so hopefully that puts a dent in some of the things,” Clapper said. “But I think that (daycare) might be something worth looking at in the future, too, because it’s not just your department …”

McGann said the county can find certified daycare providers, but questioned how much they would be paid and whether the compensation would be too low to retain longterm staff.

“… the people who work in daycare are paid so minimal that they all drop out, so I think we could do it through a grant where we could offer the person who’s providing the services (a competitive rate),” she said. “There’s a lot of hoops to go through, but if we could pay them a wage that would keep them that would be great, too.”

The average annual income in Utah for a child care worker is $22,420, data compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows, far less than Grand County’s median income of about $50,000.

“One of the biggest hurdles is all of those things have to operate in a commercial district,” Clapper said. “Everyone in the commercial zones are going for that highest use and so that’s the competition, you know, like ‘Why have a daycare when you can have an overnight rental?’”

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