In 2022, Whatcom County voters established the Healthy Children’s Fund through a dedicated $10 million per year property tax levy. The Healthy Children’s Fund was created to address pressing issues identified by groups both inside and outside of government. In 2018, the Whatcom County Health Department’s Community Health Assessment and Generations Forward (a community-driven coalition) identified access to child care, mental and behavioral health supports, and safe and affordable housing as some of the most pressing issues for children and families in Whatcom County. 

Olivia Allen, our co-founder and vice president of strategy and advocacy, spoke with Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu about the county’s work to support healthy children and families as the Healthy Children’s Fund begins implementation. You can watch the full video interview and read an edited version of their conversation below.

Allen: I want to start by asking about the environment in which the Healthy Children’s Fund levy passed. What challenges to children and families inspired the levy effort?

Executive Sidhu: I think this effort has been multiple years before and sometimes just the right time comes. I think right as COVID was going on and people were feeling so much pressure, families had time to think about their kids and what services they needed—for both parents who are working and some who are not working—how hard it has been or the lack of services available in the community. 

On the other side of the coin, the businesses looking for workforce did their research [and] they found out that they are not able to get workforce because people have priorities toward their kids and if we can help them, they can have a little more time and a little more stable workforce. The same issue was with recruitment when people wanted to come from other communities. One of the things was the housing. As we know, in Washington state or Whatcom County housing prices are very high. The second thing was what are the facilities for child care, early learning, all this mattered to people. If they had a comfortable arrangement where they were, they were willing to forego a promotion or certain increase in their wages not to lose that [arrangement] by moving to a new community.

So, all these things culminated and the efforts from the public group who work with the council and this matter was put around the ballot for the public to fund. That’s how we got this levy passed, and it all started in early 2023.

Allen: You spoke to this a little bit, but how else do the experiences of young children and families impact the well-being and economic development of Whatcom County as a whole?

Executive Sidhu: We all know that the first formative years, say 0 to 5, are very critical in any child’s development and if we, as a society, are able to provide better conditions, proper conditions for early growth and early childhood learning. Our information tells us that only 50% of kids are kindergarten ready. That does not bode very well for our next generation. I think that investments in the early learning arena are very important. So, it helps us in stable families. It helps us later on when the kids are in their teens and the kids are more stable or more productive and they need less social assistance or social programs. So, it is a monetary equation as well, the only thing is the return comes up probably five, 10 years later. Like in any stock market you want to put money in, you have to wait for a few years to get the return. We think that this was a great investment, and we still believe in that.

Allen: Counties have tremendous power to enhance the social and economic opportunities available to children and families, but as you and I both know, county government doesn’t always see itself playing this role. How do you use your position as a county executive to cultivate a culture of innovation for children and families?

Executive Sidhu: Well, let me talk about resources. We are the very basic local government. If you look at our government mandate, it is very limited. In certain states, the counties run schools. We don’t. Our public health, public works, permitting facilities, forest, agriculture, it’s all the basic things.

The income of a county like Whatcom County, a rural county of 230,000 people, the tax base is pretty limited. We don’t have all the resources we would like to deploy toward this thing. With the K-12 system being totally separated, there is a gap between [ages] 0 to 5 or 0 to 6 since the kids start going to their school and that gap has not been filled properly by state or federal government. So, we do have resources, but we don’t have all kinds of resources to do that. So that’s why an initiative like this— getting a special levy passed—was very critical. From a regular funding [perspective], we could not spare $10 million a year for this function. There are so many other priorities for the local county administration and the county’s core services for the people.

When we look at it, this is an economic development, economic sustenance issue. It’s not only for the parent and child issue or subsidizing that. This is an infrastructure issue. We should have the infrastructure, just like K-12, we should have infrastructure from [ages] 0 to 6 as well and even prior to that for prenatal care. Our community felt that this is a good initiative, and we should be able to do that and prioritize. Now we as a health department do have regular services which we do spend our other resources in providing natal care, prenatal care, as well as for the children, but that is mostly income based. This initiative was, more or less, open it up to more accessibility to all kinds of families. 

A county executive alone cannot do that. It’s the council’s prerogative because they have the purse strings, and our council has been very receptive to this idea and very supportive of this idea. We have been able to deploy some of the [American Rescue Plan] dollars. We got more than 25% of our [American Rescue Plan] allocation, which was about $44 million, was allocated to child care and that was saving the current child care slots. That was a big issue during the start of COVID and then the bigger issue was how to grow it. We found that there are 5,000 slots short in our county for early learning and child care and we’ve been slowly building that up.

Allen: Tell us about the implementation plan for the Healthy Children’s Fund and the county’s progress so far.

Executive Sidhu: Progress has been a little bit slower than we would like it to be because there are many challenges. When you have government funding you got to be very careful that you are not separating out certain segments, certain private businesses, like the law about gifting of funds. We are very much aware of that. 

But we have, over the last two to three years, not only with this money but with the [American Rescue Plan] money as well, we have added 600 new slots for child care. The implementation plan and these services, child care is a very clearly defined function. It is easy to contemplate where the investment is needed—the infrastructure, addition of new slots, new buildings. We have done four different buildings. We invested $1 million into each of these buildings. That building was getting built and we thought, “OK, why not have child care in there?” and we helped with the resources. 

Now on the other side of prenatal care as well as early learning, it takes a little time. The operators, qualified certified operators, it takes time to develop that. We have created professional development funding [to support] that. If there are some people, maybe they are mothers of kids who want to take two, three, five years off their work career and take care of their own kids and maybe another 10 kids in their neighborhood, but how to go about that and how to get certified [as a child care provider]. So, we said that professional development is an integral part of this effort, and we have a program for that. 

We are contemplating working on a unique hub-and-spoke model. The major hurdle for people to start small day care centers with 10, 15, less than 20 kids, is the drudgery and the bureaucracy in that process. Half of their time goes about that and then they’re concerned about did they do their paperwork right. We thought why not create a hub which takes all the drudgery out. They just don’t worry about collecting the money. They don’t worry about qualifying the assistant or worker and we make sure that they meet all the regulations. We make sure that they get all the proper toys and equipment in place and provide some subsidy when they need it. That way we could create child care in each community. It’s actually each neighborhood so that people are familiar. The same kids play with the same friends. Neighbors they meet with otherwise in their social life, and then their kids are together for the child care. That would be the most ideal way of doing it. To establish something like this takes time. We barely have been a year since the levy passed and so we have started work on this and I think that would be another effort that we want to do.

The other thing we want to provide is some kind of subsidy for child care workers if they’re getting just the bare minimum. The reimbursement from the state is very, very low and we wanted to supplement that so that the child care operators are able to pay fair wages to the child care workers and have adequate facilities [and] equipment available in the child care. 

I think the other part we see is the other factors of behavioral health support for the families. Housing that’s another big thing; $10 million is not enough that we can provide all the housing, but I think this is enough for us to incentivize the private sector or nonprofit sector to create more housing so that we can help them.

These are several of the things that we are putting together to make this happen. We have been talking with the local colleges to start a child care certification program and they are saying that we don’t have something, we can put it together, but they need initial funding to start something like this. That’s where we are willing to make an investment.

Allen: What is your vision for young children and families in Whatcom County? 

Executive Sidhu: Wow, my vision is really big. We are the richest nation on the earth and when we talk about these issues—I’m an immigrant. I came from India, a poor country, especially 50, 60 years ago. I grew up in that poverty and I grew up in that situation where all these resources were not even talked about or not even available. When we talk about these issues in United States of America, it breaks my heart that we don’t have our priorities straight. It is not lack of money that we don’t have money. It’s lack of priorities—all the way from the federal government. It doesn’t take much. If we look at our younger generation, we have more older people than younger people in our nation at this point of time. If we look at 20, 30 million kids, if you look at [ages] 0 to 5, they’re not even that high. It’s a pretty small number of kids and small number of parents. Our birth rate is going down and becoming negative.

I think this should concern [us]. Because who’s going to look after these people who are 20 years old when they are 60 years old? Who is going to look after them? It’s the next generation or next two generations. That’s where we need to make an investment, not investment in building some kind of big defense system, which is obsolete in 20 years, then what do you do with it? You throw it away. This generation of children, you can’t throw them away. They’re going to be with you for 60, 80 years. I think that’s my bigger vision—that our children should get the best treatment. Basics, I’m not saying it should be lavish. I’m saying what is basically needed, like we thought about the K-12 system 100 years ago. That was a good thought because the thought was that everybody should get an education. They should not be forced to go to work until they are 18. Parents don’t have to worry about spending money on their kids’ education. What a wonderful idea. Why can’t we just work on that idea and do that? This is not about lavish or throwing resources at them. It is creating basic necessities, which are good for the growth of our next generation. They are going to be our leaders, our heroes, and everything we can dream of about any nation. So, my vision is that this should be a priority. But not at the local level government or local government should be given that mandate so that they can do that or the help should come from federal government, state government, and all this. If all three levels of government are committed to this function, we have the resources.

Allen: We definitely share that vision of a nation where all children, at the very least, have the opportunity to thrive. Thank you, Executive Sidhu. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you today. We all are excited to watch Whatcom’s progress and successes as you implement the Healthy Children’s Fund.

To learn more about Whatcom’s campaign for the Healthy Children’s Fund, read our case study Voters Say “Yes” to Whatcom’s Kids.

To watch additional interviews with elected leaders in our series, check out our conversations with King County, WA, Executive Dow Constantine; former Sacramento, CA, City Council Member Jay Schenirer; Franklin County, OH, Commissioner Erica Crawley; Philadelphia, PA, Mayor Jim Kenney; and U.S. Congressman Greg Landsman, a former member of the Cincinnati, OH, City Council.