Tucson will offer childcare services for cops, firefighters & dispatchers
The Tucson City Council voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of beginning plans to fund childcare services for their public safety employees, including cops, firefighters and dispatchers, as a way to recruit and retain long-term workers.
First responders will first have to wait until the city decides where to build a facility and how to pay for the services, however.
About 2,000 first responders work for the city of Tucson, but the Council is hoping a new, accessible childcare facility, such as a daycare or preschool, will help recruit more and fill the nearly 200 vacancies that the city still has for public safety employees.
“Many of these employees have young families,” Mayor Regina Romero said Tuesday. “They work round-the-clock, and they need this additional support.”
The idea could help recruit a more diverse workforce, officials said. A lack of decent childcare services is considered a barrier for Tucson police and fire in their efforts to hire more women, according to a city memo.
“It’s something that I’ve bought into deeply as a creative and innovative way to provide a service to our public safety workers, who give so much to our community,” Romero said. “They have incredibly difficult hours of work. They work 24/7, are always at the ready and have a difficult time acquiring childcare.”
The Council heard support for the idea from Tucson Police Chief Chad Kasmar, Fire Chief Chuck Ryan and Sharon McDonough, the director of Public Safety Communications.
A childcare facility would have “an immediate impact on retention and recruitment” by the Tucson police, Kasmar said. McDonough said she was a single mom when she worked in the fire service and that “this would’ve been a game-changer for me.”
“A diverse workforce treats our community better,” McDonough said. “So our ability to accommodate the needs of those diverse people is important to us.”
McDonough went on to say that her department has recently hired five new moms “who are so excited to know they can extend their careers with us.” Chief Ryan said he’s also hopeful a childcare facility will help him retain and recruit more female firefighters.
About 3% of Tucson’s firefighters are women, which is on par with the national average, but Ryan said “we can be better than average, I’m committed to being better than average and this is a big step in that direction.”
Starting from a 'thin blue line'
The Erik Hite Foundation, a local nonprofit dedicated to supporting families of first responders and the military, spearheaded the concept of the city opening a childcare facility. Mayor Romero even gave credit to Nohemy Hite, the CEO of the foundation and widow of Officer Erik Hite, for bringing them the idea.
Hite suggested the idea after she reached out to Romero in 2020, shortly after the death of George Floyd, to request the painting of a thin blue line symbol, which features a black-and-white American flag with a blue stripe to recognize police officers, on city streets.
After “many meetings,” Hite said, “Romero committed herself to making sure we humanize our public servants” and agreed with her on the need for tangible resources “that could make a difference in their family dynamics.”
Hite said she was able to convince Romero by telling her about the success that the Hite Foundation has had in getting officers through their academy or to stay with their department by opening a child care center for law enforcement on the East Side in 2011.
However, Hite said that she had also been talking with Chief Kasmar, who’s near the end of his first year at the helm, for the past seven years about the idea of a city-owned childcare facility for public safety employees.
West Side Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz recalled that “all of us, knowing the climate post-George Floyd, felt very conflicted about the blue line being painted on the roadway because of the harm and the pain that legacy represents.
However, Santa Cruz thanked the mayor “for figuring out a way that we could find common ground in how we support our first responders.”
City Manager Michael Ortega said that building a childcare facility is “a doable project” and a “no brainer” as a recruitment and retention strategy. Ortega has “the rough outline of some thoughts,” he said, “and we can bring it back fairly quickly.”
The plan still lacks a “specific and identified funding source,” Ortega said, “but only because we’re still working on costs.” He did, however, estimate that the city would need to spend up to $2 million as an up-front investment for developing a facility as well as a multi-year operating agreement.
The city expects to cover that cost, at least in part, with user fees, as it’s not expected to provide childcare services for free like Pima County’s PEEPS program for low-income parents. The Hite Foundation will also help with the city with fundraising for the facility.
The city owns two properties that used to function as daycares, Romero said, which she considered “lucky” because the Council also discussed plans to develop a daycare for all their employees in a separate building.
“Hopefully we start with our public safety employees in providing this amazing resource and opportunity,” Romero said. “But also that we follow up and follow through with the concept of providing this to all city of Tucson employees with the second facility.”
Ortega said the city has “identified a few different opportunities in terms of property that might be ready to go pretty quick.”
The city is also “trying to be as discreet as we possibly can” with the location of the future childcare facility, Romero said. The address will be “low-key” or “not shared,” she said, which is “really important for public safety families.”
The Hite Foundation started after Officer Erik Hite was shot and killed in 2008. Hite was also a U.S. Air Force veteran. His wife started the foundation in his name in 2011.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.