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Last June, Josette Clark held an open house for her brand-new West Philadelphia child-care center, The Creation Station Day Care & Preschool: three colorful rooms stocked with cribs, toys, strollers and kid-size plastic chairs and tables. The event was a success, reaping a thick pile of applications from parents. But nearly seven months later, The Creation Station has yet to open.
Instead, Clark has spent the better part of a year navigating the Kafkaesque tangles of city bureaucracy, an especially daunting task for a first-time business owner — and one that, until about a year ago, had been facilitated by a child-care liaison within Philly's Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I). Since that position was eliminated, would-be entrepreneurs like Clark have been feeling the loss of institutional knowledge and of a dedicated point-person to provide information and field questions.
"They want us to bring revenue into the city and they want us to create jobs. I have a million job applications," says Clark, who stops by daily at 6 a.m. to roll up the grate before heading off to the temp job she's had to take. "Safety is key, and I understand that you have to go with policy and procedure. ... But it's just delay, delay, delay."
Opening any business in Philadelphia is a challenge, but for child-care providers it's uniquely difficult, says Rasheedah Phillips, who runs the Child Care Law Project at Community Legal Services. That's because many applicants are new to business or even newly emerged from poverty; it's also because regulations on child-care are especially onerous, since children's welfare is at stake. But child-care providers and advocates say poor communication by city and state agencies has made matters worse.
Christie Balka, director of advocacy at Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), sees it as a consequence of a statewide push for smaller government: "When the Nutter administration came in, they were sensitive to a lot of complaints in general about [L&I], that it was a bloated bureaucracy and a patronage machine, and they reorganized. ... The jury's still out as to whether that's working."
The process — and the headache — begins with a mandatory, state-run orientation session, held at various locations around the state. Getting into the monthly Philadelphia orientation requires commitment, and a swift finger on the redial button. "I had been trying for four months [before I got a slot]," recalls Natasha Turner, who was hoping to have her Graduate Hospital day-care center, The Learning Train Academy, open by now. "Finally, I started calling at like 7:45 a.m. ... I would just let [the phone] ring and ring."
Despite overcrowding, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare isn't planning to add more orientation sessions, spokeswoman Anne Bale says. "The good news is that people in Southeastern Pennsylvania that are not able to get into one of those trainings, they don't have to stick to Southeastern Pennsylvania," she adds.
The next-closest session is in Harrisburg, a four-hour, round-trip drive.
After that hurdle, there's zoning, building inspections, health inspections and fire safety approvals. For Clark, all this amounted to a race against dwindling savings. She's sunk around $200,000 in into her lease, renovations and then re-renovations, to follow what she says are confusing building codes. She claims she had trouble getting straight answers from L&I on what was required.
Maura Kennedy, a spokesperson for L&I, says that information is readily available online — and that removing the liaison was part of a shift toward accessibility and transparency. "Everyone in the department, supervisors and inspectors, now have this knowledge [about child-care regulations]," she says. "It wasn't a good business practice ... to just have one person with the knowledge to do a job."
The advantages of generalizing inspection skills are evident in some instances. For example, at one time the owner of an apartment building with a ground-floor coffee shop that hosts live music events would have had to work with three different inspectors. Now, one inspector can do the job.
But in the case of child-care inspections, advocates say that specialized knowledge had been helpful.
"A lot of child-care providers have felt acutely the absence of one person in L&I who they can call to answer questions and who will walk them through the process," says Balka. Now, she worries attempts at government streamlining could backfire. "If [applicants] get frustrated, they open up anyway as unlicensed child-care providers, and that's not safe for kids."
Clark is definitely frustrated. "Just when I thought I was completed in June, [L&I told me], 'No, you're not complete.'"
The problem: The inspector noticed that, in the second restroom Clark had installed, the drainpipes were laid with PVC (illegal in Philadelphia but nowhere else in Pennsylvania, thanks to the powerful plumbers' union). The pipes would need to be re-laid. In September, she says the inspector returned, only to tell her that bathroom also needed to be wheelchair accessible. In November, the inspector approved the bathroom finally — but added that an exterior light also needed to be installed. (L&I has records only of the September visits.)
L&I isn't the only obstacle. There are health inspections (Clark says her inspector missed two appointments before showing up). And there's zoning, which according to a 2005 PCCY report adds $4,140 to the cost of opening a child-care center in Philly. (The new zoning code is expected to help by allowing child-care centers to open by right in some locations, though more restrictive regulations remain in sections of the Northeast.)
Phillips, the legal advocate, says many problems arise from navigating that maze of red tape. "There's miscommunication between departments. There are inconsistent regulations. There are outdated regulations on the books. Misunderstandings around what a provider is or isn't supposed to have can lead to all sort of havoc. ... People are asked to make upgrades that aren't necessary," she says. "The reason why they had that liaison in the first place is because the process is so daunting."
Even little mistakes can be costly and time-consuming. Turner says she submitted floor plans for the first floor and basement with her application, but failed to actually specify that the basement would be used. "I had to pay another $125 just for them to add the word basement onto the same use permit," she says.
And even when she does get answers, she worries they may not be right. Take the expensive three-compartment commercial sink she's been told she needs to install in her day care: "Some people within L&I say I need the sink. Some people say I don't."
Even Phillips gets confused. She recently spent three weeks bouncing between departments — Streets, Zoning, L&I — just trying to help a child-care provider get the OK for a new sign.
Marion Brown, who runs the One Stop Shop for Child Care Licensing Information in Philadelphia, a program of the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement, says things have become more challenging — but she doesn't doubt that the inspectors are doing their best.
For people like Turner and Clark, though, that offers scant comfort. "I'm regretting deciding to open a day-care center in Philadelphia," Turner says. "I actually live in Delaware County, but I thought it would be better to open in Philadelphia, because I know a lot of people in Philly need affordable child care. Now I'm regretting this decision."