Patrick Cliff / The Bulletin

• Deschutes County gives a rent-free space

• Deschutes County gets lower-cost child care for its workers

For the last six years, Munchkin Manor, a child care center in Bend, has received free rent from Deschutes County.

The deal came with a few catches. It had to give first dibs on open slots to county employees and pass on its rent savings to all families that enroll children there. The county also limits how much the center can raise fees each year to 5 percent.

The county has about two dozen tenants operating on its property, and Munchkin Manor is one of the few that pay no rent.

Operating in a rent-free space may be a sweet deal, but it did not draw much interest from local child care centers when the county made the offer seven years ago. Back in 2004, when the county issued a request for proposals, only two centers replied. Munchkin Manor, a for-profit business, won the deal over another center, which soon went out of business. The center opened in the summer of 2005 and recently signed a five-year extension on the space.

Sue Bauer, the center’s owner, said the deal has allowed her to keep costs low and remain afloat.

“I’m making it,” Bauer said. “If I had to pay rent, I wouldn’t make it with the rates.”

Bauer estimates her rent at the building, which sits across from the Deschutes County administration building, would cost her at least $2,000 per month. With about 45 children in her center, that equates roughly to a savings of about $43 per child per month. Bauer’s rates are about $50 below local averages. In 2010, according to an Oregon State University survey, the median price in Deschutes County for toddler care at a center was $645 per month. At Munchkin Manor, where rates have not changed since 2008, monthly toddler care costs $593.

At Growing Tree Children’s Center, of Bend, full-time care for a 2-year-old child is $650, according to director Tammy Rundle.

When the county released its RFP in 2004, Growing Tree decided against responding for several reasons, Rundle said.

The space was small, she said, an assessment with which Bauer agrees. And because of the requirement to pass savings on to families, Growing Tree would have kept its existing location open and so would have had two locations with different pricing structures, according to Rundle.

“We just decided that wasn’t the best way to go,” Rundle said.

That its deal with the county allows Munchkin Manor to charge less is an advantage for the center, Rundle said, which is able to offer some wider benefits. The lower rates mean that a few more families are able to work and send their children to reliable day care.

“There are people out there that are struggling, and (lower rates) allow them to go to work,” Rundle said.

Cynthia Hurkes, communications manager for the Oregon Child Care Resource&Referral Network, agrees that even a slightly lower-cost center can benefit a community. Parents have struggled to pay for child care and work full-time during the economic downturn.

Hurkes had not heard of the county arrangement before.

“I’m surprised,” Hurkes said. “That’s a huge social program to offer.”

Others benefit from the arrangement, too. Mary’s Place, a local nonprofit, uses Munchkin Manor during evening and weekend hours for supervised visitation between parents and children.

Munchkin Manor’s arrangement is not unique only to Deschutes County, but also in the region. Companies sometimes offer subsidized child care or on-site centers for employees, according to Patty Wilson, a child care resources program manager at NeighborImpact, a nonprofit network of social services. Wilson had not heard of a similar deal between a government and private child care center.

Unlike those company-sponsored centers, Munchkin Manor is open to the public. The agreement requires the center to offer first pick to county employees and to state employees who work in county-owned property, but everyone pays the same rate. The center has never been more than half-filled by children of county or state employees, according to Susan Ross, the county’s property and facilities director.

When the county decided to offer the deal, it had long wanted to provide child care for its employees’ families near downtown. Through the deal, the county could also help open a cheaper child care center for the general public.

“When we did this, it wasn’t just because we wanted to provide day care for employees,” Ross said.

Munchkin Manor is full, and its new lease is a sign that it has done well. Despite that success, no one has called the county since the original RFP to inquire about competing for the space, Ross said. On almost every other deal — from window washing to paper supply — competitors call to find out when a county deal will end.

When the child care RFP drew little interest, the county made calls to individual centers after it had sent a letter to each one it knew of.

“We always knew it would be a long-term relationship, and we wanted it to be,” Ross said. “You can’t just change day care providers every two years. You need that continuity, that stability.”