Simplified: Sioux Falls City Councilors agree that something needs to be done to help families affected by Apple Tree's announcement that it'll close three of its four locations in the coming weeks. But when it comes to long-term, sustainable solutions to the ongoing childcare crisis in the city, elected officials are divided on how to help – and if the city even has a role to play at all.
Why it matters
- Sioux Falls (and the state as a whole) has a well-documented childcare crisis in which parents cannot afford to pay the rates providers need to charge to pay their workers a sufficient wage. Additionally, providers are facing continuously rising costs and significant staffing challenges.
- Last fall, the city was one of the partners behind funding a six-month study to research and understand exactly what the childcare crisis looks like in Sioux Falls, as well as identify potential solutions – which were ultimately released in this 97-page report.
- When the rubber met the road come budget season, though, neither the City Council nor the mayor chose to put money behind any of the proposed solutions. Councilors briefly in September discussed – but moments later rejected – a proposal from Councilor Pat Starr to give the health department $100,000 to fund a future office for early childhood and youth development within the city.
"We missed our opportunity to solve this crisis without it being painful," Starr told Sioux Falls Simplified.
So, what do elected officials have to say about all of this?
Sioux Falls Simplified reached out to all eight City Council members as well as Mayor Paul TenHaken over the last few days to ask if and how they see the city playing a role in solving the childcare crisis.
- And if yes, we also asked them if they planned on taking any specific or measurable actions in the next six months.
Here's what they had to say:
Mayor Paul TenHaken sent along a statement encouraging families affected by Apple Tree's closure to take advantage of the resources available through the Helpline Center, the city and the state Department of Social Services.
"Sioux Falls is not alone in this ongoing challenge, and viable solutions will continue to rely on innovation and collaboration," TenHaken stated.
- When asked if he sees the city playing a role in that solution or if he had any specific policies or proposals he plans to support, the mayor did not respond to further requests for comment.
Six of the eight sitting council members responded to interview requests Monday and Tuesday, and overall, councilors expressed a desire to help and a recognition that childcare challenges must be addressed in Sioux Falls. They also largely agreed that a major issue is the lack of staff for childcare providers.
- They were split, though, on whether the city should take an active role, and what that might even look like.
- Several councilors noted they'd like to wait see what the state legislature does first – or at least work in collaboration with the state. Though no councilor directly cited an example of that happening at this point.
- Councilors Greg Neitzert and David Barranco specifically cited their support for some of the practical solutions from the childcare collaborative, though Neitzert noted there'd likely have to be some support from the mayor's office to make any of that happen.
Here's a more specific breakdown of what each councilor said:
Councilor Rich Merkouris said he'd like to see the city incentivizing more people to open in-home daycares. He also said that since childcare is an economic issue, it should be a stated priority of the city's economic development partner, Forward Sioux Falls.
- But, he added, because of the complexity of the childcare issue, any long-term solutions will have to come from collaboration in some form with businesses, schools and the state.
"I don't foresee the city budget reflecting direct support for families and individuals on childcare," Merkouris said. "I think that would be a bad idea."
Councilor Alex Jensen has already made the childcare crisis a focus of discussion for the council's Regulatory Oversight Committee meeting in January, and ultimately, he'd like to see the legislature do a summer study on the issue to "understand the information a little bit better."
Councilor Curt Soehl said he also wants to see something happen quickly, including potentially funding a childcare coordinator position within the city in 2024. But, like other councilors, Soehl said he doesn't see the city subsidizing childcare in any way.
"I don't know how the City of Sioux Falls has that kind of money to put into this," Soehl said.
Councilor David Barranco said he'd like to see both the city and state tackle this issue in 2024, with a focus on expanding the childcare workforce. There's an argument to be made to wait and see what happens in Pierre, but he said he'd rather act more quickly to help and implement some of the strategies from the collaborative.
"Step one is 'damage control' in helping Apple Tree families find available solutions," Barranco said. "But that's just remedial. We must bring new solutions to the table."
Councilor Pat Starr said he's heard a lot of officials "pontificate" about the need to do something about the childcare crisis, but when it was time to pass the budget, the city did not opt to fund any of the solutions the Sioux Falls Childcare Collective suggested.
"Is it baton passing, or is the city unwilling to help?" Starr said.
Councilor Greg Neitzert said he's genuinely not sure exactly what role the city should play here, though he recognizes the crisis families are facing. He said it's tempting to do something quickly and throw money at the problem, but that he thinks more information is needed, likely in addition to state legislative support.
"I don't know that we know enough to know what we would even do at this point," Neitzert said.
Councilors Sarah Cole and Marshall Selberg could not be reached for comment.