An organization representing local day-care center operators says Salt Lake County is using tax-dollar subsidies to practice "socialized child care," and wants the county to get out of the preschool child-care business.

Clarke Fowers, president of the Utah Child Care Association, says the county uses tax revenues to subsidize day-care operations at four county multipurpose centers, and he charges that amounts to unfair competition for private child-care providers."Under what mandate is the county running day-care centers?" Fowers asked county commissioners before an audience that included about 30 private child-care providers. "The county should have no more interest in the day-care business than it has in the pizza or video business."

The subsidies allow the county to charge $9.50 per day for child care while private providers charge about $15, and permit the county to pay day-care workers $5.50 per hour when private providers pay an average of $4.42, he said.

Glen Lu, director of the county's Parks and Recreation division, which operates county child-care programs, said county officials, private providers and consumers - working parents who need facilities to help care for their children - should discuss the association's concerns together.

But Lu angered private day-care providers by suggesting that the discussion should include questions like whether private day-care centers price their services beyond the reach of some low-income working parents, and whether the quality of child care provided by some private centers is inadequate.

Lu also questioned whether the tax-subsidy issue is a smokescreen, noting that nearly all private day-care providers themselves receive tax money from the Utah Division of Family Services under contract to provide care for children in state family-assistance programs.

Fowers said his organization has long been concerned about the county's day-care center operations providing unfair competition for private providers. But the issue has come to the forefront because of Sen. Orrin Hatch's sponsorship of legislation mandating additional day-care facilities.

"Throughout the country there may be a shortage of day-care facilities," Fowers said. "But in Utah we have the opposite problems. We have a huge surplus of day care."

Licensed day-care providers in Salt Lake County have facilities to care for 50 percent more children - or nearly 4,000 more - than they now have enrolled, Fowers said. If the county would terminate its programs, that would fill 500-600 of those vacancies in private day-care centers - giving those centers an estimated additional $1.1 million in revenues annually.

County day-care operations don't have to pay for rent, utilities, janitorial service, vehicle expenses, insurance costs, depreciation or other expenses because they operate from county buildings and use county vehicles, Fowers said. Those hidden costs amount to a tax subsidy of county day care,he charges.

Lu said the county multipurpose centers were built with federal funds available to the county only because day-care facilities were to be housed in the buildings. Allocating the utility and vehicle costs to county child-care programs would be difficult because the multipurpose centers and vehicles are shared by many county recreation and education programs, as well as by day care.