Subsidized child care sparks heated council debate

SunRise and Shine Childcare Executive Director Chelsea Raso wipes her eyes while daycare owner Peter Gervais grabs the bridge of his nose Tuesday, March 29, 2016 after council passed an agreement allowing the center to accept parents who qualify for a government subsidy. Cornwall, as a daycare service provider for SD&G, got into a heated discussion over whether it should regulate the market. (Newswatch Group/Bill Kingston)

CORNWALL – The senior staff of a Cornwall child care center said Tuesday night they were encouraged by social services staff to apply to accept parents that are allowed subsidized child care.

But the proposal before city council Tuesday night turned into a heated debate between several councillors and the mayor over how the child care market should be handled.

Unlike other areas of the province where there’s a waiting list, SD&G has over 260 vacancies for child care.

The agreement with SunRise & Shine Childcare Center to allow the center on Eleventh Street to accept subsidized parents passed in a council vote of 7-3. Councillors Bernadette Clement, Maurice Dupelle and Andre Rivette voted against it.

“We don’t pick the winners and losers,” Mayor Leslie O’Shaughnessy snapped as he challenged Coun. Andre Rivette’s assertion that SD&G has 10 good day care centers and with over 260 vacancies, adding more spaces would dilute the system.

Coun. Elaine MacDonald said the city shouldn’t be meddling “with market forces” and that having non-subsidized daycare fosters “elitism.”

Coun. Bernadette Clement believed there was more to the story than was in the council report before them. “This is absurd. Why is council in this position?,” she questioned.

SunRise & Shine Childcare Center Owner Peter Gervais and Executive Director Chelsea Raso agreed with Clement’s belief.

“I’m just so emotional. I don’t think I expected that…” Raso said. “Dog fight,” Gervais added, completing her sentence. “It was the recommendation coming from the manager to approve it so I assumed it would just be approved. Sitting in there having to listen to that I was getting a little bit discouraged,” Raso added.

The daycare has been open since January 2015. “The councillors that we talked to that we assumed that they understood our position, were actually the councillors that turned against us tonight, which surprised me,” owner Peter Gervais told Cornwall Newswatch.

Executive Director Chelsea Raso said there were so many questions that council didn’t have the answers for and she felt frustrated that she couldn’t answer them for council, given the procedure of the meeting.

“Yes, there are 260-some available spaces. However, something we offer are infant spaces, which there are currently zero spaces in the city,” she said. The day care has 10 spaces for ages 0-12 months.

Gervais said the system is loaded at the front end (very young children) because of government pre-schools at area schools, which diminishes the need for pre-school daycare.

Daycare spaces are roughly $800 a month for infant spaces, compared to $2,400 a month in Toronto and $1,800 in Ottawa.

SunRise & Shine Childcare has 49 spaces, including 10 infant, 15 toddler and 24 pre-school spaces.

Gervais said Cornwall daycare centers need to accept subsidized families because “people cannot afford daycare here. The only way to survive is to be subsidized, is to be able to accept subsidized children,” Gervais explained, due to lower wages and the cost of living.

He said they were “caught in an unenviable position” after being encouraged by the previous social services manager, Monique Gunn, to start the process of a daycare.

Adding to the struggle is the other daycares are receiving operating subsidies that SunRise and Shine is not, Gervais said.

“We spent a lot of time and money getting a (Ministry of Education) licence. We just got renewed…with flying colours…as far as daycares we are at the top of the cream,” Gervais said.

“This puts us on the list of people they can go to,” Raso said.