Warsaw Common Council gave its OK Monday to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) and for $250,000 of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds for a program by LaunchPad and the Kosciusko Chamber of Commerce to help increase local childcare capacity.

The program would offer grants of up to $100,000 over four years to businesses with at least 50 employees to provide childcare for their employees.

The Board of Public Works and Safety will approve the final contract between the city and the Chamber’s foundation.

In introducing the request for city ARPA funds, Mayor Joe Thallemer said LaunchPad Director Sherry Searles “and the Chamber have been working hard, looking at affordable childcare as a very important component to supporting the workforce in this community. I think they’ve learned how difficult it is to navigate those waters with costs and regulations, both state and local.”

He noted that the city will be entertaining some zoning changes to try and make it a little easier of a task for them as they look at residential-type of facilities. LaunchPad has worked with Instrumental Machine & Development (IMD) as a pilot project to create opportunities with childcare for their employees, he said.

“I solicited from LaunchPad a program they could administer to improve that affordable childcare opportunity in the city, and they presented several things to me. Most of them were projects and programs that dealt with the operations side of these projects, but the one project in particular that I felt would be most appropriate would be a grant to help support capital improvement to get this done,” Thallemer said.

He reminded the Council that they had appropriated some funding in the ARPA budget to go toward some type of affordable childcare solution.

Chamber President and CEO Rob Parker said LaunchPad was formed between United Way, the Chamber and the Community Foundation coming together and looking at the issue of childcare.

“It really comes down to a workforce issue, that’s what we believe, and that’s why it is housed at the Chamber,” Parker said, noting that “we are still the only one that sees it primarily as a workforce issue, trying to get more talent to work and recruiting more people into our community. So that’s why we took it on.”

He said the state of Indiana did some research and said that the cost of childcare equates to a $1.3 billion direct cost to employers due to lost economic wages and inactivity. “So, because their children are sick, because they have to take time off, that’s the amount of revenue that’s lost, and when you lose that kind of revenue, obviously, that impacts the state at the bottom level in tax revenue.”

If there aren’t enough childcare seats, then not everyone can go to work, Parker said, as someone has to stay home and watch the kids. A lot of the participation in the workforce is lost in women.

Searles listed the work LaunchPad has been doing in breaking down barriers, including zoning changes at the city and county levels, providing fingerprinting for childcare workers at the Chamber office and working with State Rep. Craig Snow to get House Bill 1318 passed by the legislature, which goes into effect July 1. HB 1318 helps local schools be able to expand their childcare options.

According to 2018 data from the Early Learning Advisory Council, one of the Indiana governor’s task forces, there were about 3,000 children under the age of 5 that needed care in Kosciusko County, she said. There were also about 1,200 known programs, or known seats. In that 1,200, she said they were looking at programs the state regulates, whether that’s a licensed home, church-based, school-based or center-based. The county was short by about 1,800 seats.

“We’re not only looking at building capacity, but we want our capacity to be high-quality, and the state has a rating system ... and in order for a program to be considered high-quality, they need to be rated at a level 3 or 4. And, in 2018, only 356 of our seats were considered high-quality according to that rating scale,” Searles said.

Currently, after about four years of work, she said, children under the age of 5 that need care has gone up a little bit and so have the number of known seats.

“So, currently, we have a little over 1,300 seats, and with the programs that are currently working on expanding and intend to open in August, we will have 1,545 seats,” Searles stated.

The number of high-quality seats also have grown over the last few years, she said.

“That brings us to the opportunity that we now have before us with the ARPA funds,” Searles said. “And, so, having worked with businesses over the last couple of years, what we would like to do with those funds is to make a 25% investment in the business for start-up costs, not to exceed $100,000. We will require that the businesses have at least 50 employees and that they provide at least 12 seats, so if they choose to open a licensed childcare home, they could have 12 to 16 seats, all the way up to a licensed center, which could have as many seats as they choose.”

As an example, she said IMD has invested about $400,000 to provide childcare for its workers, so a grant to it from the ARPA funds would be about $90,000.

“We will be monitoring these funds, so they will be distributed over four years with some guidelines in place to make sure they are current with state regulations, that their capacity is where it needs to be and also we are requiring that they would be at least a level 3 ... so that we’re not just building capacity, but we are building high-quality capacity,” Searles said.

After some questions about from Thallemer and the Council members about the contract, Thallemer said those questions would be worked out in the final contract before going to the Board of Works for approval. He just asked the Council to approve the concept and use of ARPA funds for the program.

Councilman Josh Finch made the motion to approve it, Councilwoman Cindy Dobbins seconded it and it was approved unanimously.