Wary of possible costly repercussions, Carbon County commissioners on Thursday did not finalize a proposed five-year, $7 million contract with the state to administer subsidized child care services in both Carbon and Monroe counties

Now, the ball is in the state's court: it will have to administer the program, or find someone who will, as of July 1. The turn of events also may cost three employees in the county's Child Care Information Services Agency their jobs.

The state Department of Public Welfare is consolidating county child care information services. One of those consolidations was to merge Carbon and Monroe, then seek proposals from various entities, public or private, to administer the program. Carbon County has about 300 clients who use the program, which subsidizes child care for working families; Monroe has at least three times that number.

But no private groups bid on the contract; nor did Monroe County. So, Carbon stepped up to the plate.

"The three of us thought since it was fully-funded by the state, we could save jobs and continue the program, and that we could even hire more Carbon employees to administer the program in Monroe," said commissioner William O'Gurek.

But, said Commissioners Chairman Wayne Nothstein, "the state changed the plans in the middle of the proposal process."

DPW decided Carbon would have to establish an office in Monroe County, and hire employees there. It also added an option that would allow it to back out of the contract.

"When Carbon was the only one to submit a proposal, DPW was not happy that we proposed to run the two-county service out of Jim Thorpe, so they said they wanted us to maintain a presence in Monroe. This complicated the process to the extent that we had to look into renting office space in Monroe and we had to hire people from Monroe," he said.

Carbon County has three employees, while Monroe has nine, Nothstein said.

The current Monroe County employees make much more than their counterparts in Carbon. In addition, Carbon would also have to pay their health benefits.

If the state chose to opt out of the contract, the county would be responsible for paying for unemployment costs.

"We're looking at the long-term liability," he said.

Nothstein said that the state officials were difficult to work with. He credited state senators John Yudichak and David G. Argall for helping the county as much as they could.

It was when county Controller Robert Crampsie analyzed the financial aspects of the contract that commissioners understood the possible pitfalls. The contract also would have increased that office's workload, Nothstein said.

At the regular public commissioners' meeting Thursday, Commissioner Thomas J. Gerhard moved to execute the contract. However, it died for lack of a second when O'Gurek and Nothstein remained silent.

"We would have been operating a state program voluntarily, one that is not mandated to us," O'Gurek said.

He pointed out that the county has been cutting programs that are not mandated and that cost the county money.

"While this one may not have cost money from the start, it very much could have," he said.

Further, he said, Carbon would have had to hire five additional people, mostly for the Monroe office, and that likely would have increased the county's health care costs.

"We just eliminated positions in tax assessment, parks, children and youth, and solid waste," O'Gurek said. "So how could we justify hiring five people, let alone people from Monroe?"

Also, the county would have had to pay to train the new employees, and, if the state opted out, the county would likely have to pay unemployment costs.

"If the state would ever cut funding in the next five years for child care services, who would bear that responsibility? Or, if the state doesn't pass a budget on time, as has happened in the past, who would pay the costs associated with a $7 million program while there's no money coming from the state?" O'Gurek said.

Of the $7 million, $6.2 million would be paid to child care providers, and the other $815,000 would go toward administration, operations and personnel.

"This was a tough decision for all three of us," Gerhard said. "Our original intent was to enter into a contract with the state to save three of our county employees ... we did this with the best of intentions, and now it kind of backfired on us."