TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — The Coddington Road Community Center is planning to undergo a $4.8M expansion of its childcare facilities. The project has been an ambition for over a decade, and faced a huge interruption as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic but, perhaps, the timing is better at this point. 

“Before the people that were talking about childcare were people who had children and who needed childcare. I think now everyone is talking about childcare,” said Heather Mount, the Executive Director of Coddington Road Community Center.

The pandemic thrust the issue into the public eye in a big way, spotlighting the steep costs families are confronted with; the thin margins centers contend with and the resulting low wages that those working in the industry typically earn; as well as the scarce availability of care to begin with.

Tompkins County, for the most part, is considered a child care desert according to data collected by the Center for American Progress. On average in Tompkins County, there are six children for every available slot in a child care center. The availability of seats in Tompkins County has decreased by 68% between 2002 and 2020, adding extra emphasis to the move the expansion that Coddington is undertaking.

The $4.8M capital project would add up to 48 new slots to the space that Coddington has for the ages before kids can attend schools, and 20 additional slots for afterschool programs. It would be a big leap for the facility which currently has 82 total slots, though the demand is evident. Coddington’s waitlist has over 130 families on it.

But the catch is that not all the funding for the expansion has been secured yet.

Around $700,000 or 20% of the funding was secured by Coddington Community Center through the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council (REDC), but the rest of the cost will have to be financed through the community center’s own efforts. Mount said that the interest rates that will make the project achievable will require at least $1.2M to be raised for the expansion.

Grants from the state, United Way, the Community Foundation of Tompkins County, and just old-fashioned fundraising are all revenue sources that Mount says are being explored.

“We just need the community to recognize the importance of childcare, and that this expansion helps everyone, not just our center,” said Mount.

Heather Mount, the Executive Director of the Coddington Road Community Center Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

The strong tie between affordable child care and economic growth has been one of the main planks of some politicians’ platforms and talking points, like NYS Gov. Kathy Hochul. In what was a contentious, week-late, and record sized budget negotiation process, New York State saw $7B that would be dedicated to funding subsidies and grant programs to support child care providers, those in the workforce, capital projects, and also families. The Tompkins County Legislature released a statement praising the investment on Monday.

While running childcare facilities is a tough business to be in — which is why many move to operate as non-profits — it also isn’t done at a price point parents can typically meet.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, affordable child care should cost no more than 7% of a family’s income. Coddington, which offers a sliding scale, scholarships, and works with families that qualify for assistance on their childcare bills, charges around between $2,000 to $1,500 a month for infant care; and between $1,300 to $1,000 a month for pre-school age care.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average cost for pre-school care in New York state is $1,030 a month, and for infant care it’s $1,283 a month. For a family to meet New York’s average yearly cost for infant care and fall within the HHS’s definition of affordable child care, they would need to make almost $220,000 a year.

What Coddington charges for care, Mount says, is just enough to avoid a deficit in the center’s operating budget. Surplus is sought out through grant funding. While childcare centers may be in the position of charging just enough to operate, it is too much for most families to actually afford. 

Mount said that she regularly has conversations with parents who are weighing quitting their jobs to take care of their children because the cost of childcare is just too high, although that really isn’t an option.

“If people aren’t supposed to spend more than 7% of their income […] — you know, if that’s real, then nobody should be paying the tuition that we charge right now,” said Mount. “Because I’m sure that $24,000 a year for an infant is more than 7% of those people’s household income.”

For Mount, the state’s focus on the issues she has spent her career working around is thrilling, but the fear lingers that the attention will not be renewed. The pandemic, Mount said, made childcare a “shiny,” and she feels like the issue is finally being taken seriously as a “long term societal issue,” but if funding drops off she said, “we’re going to constantly come back to the same problem.”

Though, for Mount, the expansion is her big focus, which she fully expects to be sustainable going into the future. 

“This has been my focus for ten years. It will happen,” she said.

A digital rendering of the planned expansion for Coddington Road Community Center.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn