After meeting with day-care providers upset with the fees they say are too high in some towns, County Commissioner Julia W. Gouge has started a task force to encourage more licensed day-care homes, while controlling the impact on towns and neighborhoods.
"We're finding it's essential to have adequate day care here in the county," Gouge said. She said employers are relying on licensed homes and centers to provide day care for workers' children.
In the meantime, the Carroll State's Attorney's Office is launching a crackdown on people who provide day care in their homes without a state license. Criminal charges can be filed against persons suspected of providing unlicensed day care in their homes, which is a misdemeanor. The task force will grow out of a brainstorming session Gouge called Monday morning between representatives from town and county governments. Leslie Hinebaugh, the county's child-care coordinator, will chair the group.
While some towns in the county have few restrictions on people licensed to provide day care in their homes, others such as Westminster and Hampstead charge up to $750 in zoning and other fees.
Hinebaugh estimated that the county needs licensed day-care spaces for another 600 children, mostly infants. So far, no centers in the county take children under age 2, she said, so family day care is now the only place parents can find licensed care for babies.
Family day care provides home-based care for up to eight children. The provider's own children under age 6 must be counted in the total, of which no more than two can be infants under age 2.
In a statement announcing the crackdown, the State's Attorney's Office said day-care homes are licensed to protect the children and screen providers for abuse.
A 1987 survey of about 400 homes found that 26 percent of the parents who responded knowingly had their children in unli censed day-care homes. But that survey is out of date and had a poor return rate, Hinebaugh said.
She said a national survey has found that 94 percent of day care is unlicensed, but believes Maryland has a much lower rate. She also said these surveys don't indicate whether the child is being taken care of by a relative, who doesn't require a license.
Hinebaugh told officials the county's 510 state-licensed home day-care providers would have trouble paying high fees for zoning variances. Most, she said, are women who want to stay home with their own preschool children because they can't afford to pay for day care.
"We need to take that leap from looking at family day care as a business to looking at family day care as a service," said Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown.
However, Hampstead Town Manager John Riley said other businesses that operate out of homes pay the fees and have less impact on traffic, sewer and water than day care would.
But Hinebaugh said day care is important enough that towns should allow more slack for providers than for other businesses.
"In defense of the day-care providers, we haven't had any complaints," Riley said.
Hampstead officials have decided not to pursue the fees from day-care providers unless someone complains, and no providers have had to pay so far, Riley said.
Hampstead has the highest charges for providers -- a total of $750 in fees for a new business. Manchester charges $100, Sykesville charges a total of $60, and Taneytown requires $175 only if an appeal is needed.
Westminster has no zoning requirement for home day-care providers until they take in seven or eight children. The fee is $400.
Mount Airy has a $300 fee for anyone applying for a home-based business, but no day-care providers have applied for it, said planning and zoning clerk Barbara J. Dixon. Union Bridge and New Windsor don't charge home day-care providers.