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Editorial: Westchester should view day care as an investment

A state court has upheld price increases for

A state court has upheld price increases for families who keep children in Westchester County's day care programs (July 3, 2012) Photo Credit: News12

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino may indeed feel vindicated after a State Supreme Court upheld his increases in child care fees, but it ought to be clear: There are no winners here.

Not the county executive, nor the Board of Legislators, which sued Astorino in June over his more than doubling of parental fees. Certainly not the parents, who aren't earning a lot and will have to dig deeper within 6 weeks to pay for care -- anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 more per year. And not their children, who may be forced into more informal arrangements or unlicensed facilities, which in some scenarios aren't ideal, and are possibly unsafe.

And taxpayers aren't likely to see much relief, either, when you consider the estimated $4 million in savings will be gobbled up somewhere else in a $1.8-billion budget.

Justice Robert A. Neary on Monday tossed a county board lawsuit and ruled that the commissioner of the Department of Social Services, Kevin McGuire, was within his rights to seek higher contributions from parents, from 20 percent to 35 percent, without county board approval, since it was within state guidelines. Now, Westchester is among 20 of New York's 62 counties, including those in New York City, that charge parents the maximum amount allowed.

The increase affects about 3,000 children in two county programs. The majority are in a mandated program that receives federal money; it serves low-income families who are 200 percent above the poverty line. The other program, a discretionary scholarship fund called Title XX, is for families that earn 275 percent above the poverty line, or about $41,000 for a family of two.

Under the new rate for Title XX, single parents earning just under $40,000 would pay roughly $8,300 for care, or $3,600 more than they currently pay. A family of four in the mandated program earning $35,000 would pay about $5,500, or about $2,300 more.

The day care divide has been an issue since Astorino took office in 2010. He said then that the county, despite having a $566-million social services budget, including $32 million for day care, couldn't afford nonmandated programs like Title XX. This year he has said the money wasn't budgeted properly by the board and therefore jeopardized the program, something lawmakers dispute.

There have since been budget disagreements, vetoes, overrides and lawsuits. A compromise on this issue put forth by Republican lawmakers who supported day care was all but ignored by Democrats and now their leader, chairman Ken Jenkins, has promised to appeal Neary's ruling.

Astorino has said his administration took the "necessary action to shore up the solvency of our day care program" and the ruling validates his decision.

That may be important to anyone keeping score of the legal battles unfolding between the two branches, but we may not know the real harm to the families and children and true cost of these actions until years down the road.

County leaders have a duty to watch spending, but sometimes the choices made are shortsighted. Day care is a long-term investment that helps students stay in school and allows parents to hold a job or get an education.

This week's court decision may have vindicated the county executive's budget decision, but it's no great policy victory -- not for parents or taxpayers.

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