CHILD CARE BUDGETS GO FROM FLUSH TO TIGHT OVERNIGHT

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The first casualty of the city’s post-September 11 belt-tightening came to light last week: To meet the 15 percent budget cut mandated by Mayor Giuliani, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services is expected to reduce its spending on child care, Head Start and child support enforcement by more than $90.6 million.

The looming cuts, which are to be put into budget reserves, were revealed at a City Council hearing last week during which council members, union leaders and child care advocates slammed the Giuliani administration for squandering funds meant to expand the city’s affordable child care system to historic levels. The city’s Office of Management and Budget is still negotiating with ACS on the final budget cut numbers, and an announcement is expected soon.

Meanwhile, child care advocates are lamenting what they say were missed opportunities to create more day care slots before ACS’ budget went from flush to tight overnight. Since 1999, the feds have sent $165 million in block grants and surplus welfare dollars for child care expansion, with which the Agency for Child Development, a division of ACS, said it would create more than 6,000 day care slots.

Over the last two years, however, the city admits it has added only 1,600 spaces. “The money has been there,” said Mary Barber, chief of staff to outgoing City Councilmember Ronnie Eldridge, chair of the council’s committee on women’s issues. “But this administration hasn’t used it.”

In ACD’s defense, the agency’s associate commissioner, Paula Feinstein, said the city has focused on “increasing quality of service” rather than just quantity.

Still, some child care advocates say this argument sidesteps the real problem: manpower. According to a recent survey by DC 37, the city’s largest municipal union, ACD has lost two-thirds of its fiscal staff–responsible for reviewing contracts–over the past decade. That lack of fiscal staff has crippled the contract awarding process that was supposed to add nearly 4,000 new child care care slots: Contractors responding to a request for proposals put out in April 2000 were supposed to begin operating last December, and have yet to.

Meanwhile, 30,000 families sit on the city’s waiting list for child care, according to ACD. This while 3,400 day care vouchers awarded to needy families have gone unused due to a lack of providers and a lack of staff to regularly vet the list.

“In [the Giuliani administration’s] quest to downsize government, they’ve destroyed the services we provide,” charged Raglan George, director of day care for DC 1707, the city’s child care worker union.

The council will produce a briefing paper based on testimony, and plans another hearing in December.