Utahns fork over half a paycheck (or more) for child care, while child care workers struggle with low pay. And costly zoning laws are to blame.
Utah has a child care shortage, with long waitlists for parents trying to get babies and toddlers into centers. According to Susan Madsen, a Utah State University leadership professor who testified to the state's Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee last year, over 150,000 children in Utah under 6 possibly need child care, but only 63,000 slots are available in formal child care programs or other state-licensed ones.
In that same hearing, Johnny Anderson, a former state lawmaker and the president and CEO of ABC Great Beginnings child care centers, told the committee that growing areas in the state don't have an adequate amount of child care facilities.
But building them can be a nightmare. During a May 2021 hearing at the state Capitol, child care center owners told lawmakers about the many obstacles certain zoning practices create for them. Many of those laws add hundreds of thousands of dollars to a project before a center even opens, keeping would-be center owners from entering the child care market and keeping costs high for families.
"You gotta spend money not only on the property, you gotta spend money on engineering, architecture to get something that you can finally get in front of a city staff to get approval to move to the next stage, which is often a planning commission," Anderson said last year. "You're going to get an up-or-down vote from them or recommendations of things that you gotta change before you can finally get over to a city council."
Anderson recalled that after finding a property in a master-planned community that had the zoning for a child care center, he still had to go through a frustrating rezoning process.
"It takes four months to get in front of a city council just for the rezone. And as I'm sitting in that city council meeting, the city council members start arguing amongst themselves whether or not the zone that they had identified on a master plan was really the zone that they want in that space." The city attorney ultimately asked Anderson to go through the rezoning process again.
Anderson believes local officials have no idea what these delays and denials cost. "I said, 'I am paying $13,000 a month in interest on this piece of ground. And you act as though it's nothing for me to go back and start this process over.'"
In addition, he had to bury power lines and install a new sidewalk. Then the city changed its water detention standards before he got his building permit. "All of this resulted in about $400,000 above what the construction costs were going to be for this facility," Anderson said. Not many child care center owners have an extra $400,000 lying around.
Staffing child care facilities is another hurdle. Anderson said that while child care centers in Utah spend about $0.50 on staffing for every dollar in revenue, "We have to figure out a way to get more money to our staff." Not forcing centers to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to meet unnecessary zoning requirements could help.
An easy zoning fix would be to give child care centers the same development flexibility as charter schools. "Charter schools are basically treated like public schools, which are basically treated like state facilities," said Anderson. "Where, as long as you are [sticking to a] uniform building code, cities really can't get in your way."
Both Republicans and Democrats in the Utah Legislature tell Reason that they have not decided what child care bills, if any, they will run next session. However, they also pointed to recent bills that reduced regulations and expanded access to child care. Lawmakers consistently get pushback from cities that don't want the state butting into local zoning decisions, no matter how unreasonable those rules are. And the powerful Utah League of Cities and Towns, a nonpartisan cooperative of localities, is also known to fight state laws targeting local zoning.
But the major problems won't be solved if petty city tyrants are allowed to jerk around small business owners. And Utahns will continue paying the price for the state's child care shortage as potential owners face many setbacks in opening new centers. As Anderson said, "The new people…who want to take that risk cannot do this."