Day-care center operators pushing to end Salt Lake County's preschool operations got a surprise this week when parents turned out in force to support the county's program at a public hearing.

An organization representing private child-care providers had requested the hearing before the Salt Lake County Recreation Board to protest what it believes is the county's use of tax-dollar subsidies to practice "socialized child care."But the private providers found themselves outnumbered by parents with children enrolled in county preschool. Supporters of the county program said private day care can't or won't meet their children's needs.

"If we'd known all these parents were going to be here, we could have had parents of our kids here, too," said day-care center owner Holly Hansen.

About 40 of the more than 100 people attending voiced opinions pro and con on county preschool during the two-hour hearing. The private day-care providers lined up against the county program, saying it's unfair competition. Parents solidly backed the program.

Private providers say tax money subsidizes preschools at eight county multipurpose centers, allowing the county to undercut prices charged by private centers.

They complained the county program has enrolled 500 to 600 children who otherwise would be enrolled in private centers. Private providers lose an estimated $1.1 million in revenue annually because of unfair county competition, said Clarke Fowers, president of the Utah Child Care Association, which represents 277 licensed day-care centers.

But county figures show an average daily attendance in its preschools of 235 children. That figure represents less than one additional child enrolled in each of the association's member centers were the county close its program, said Mary Chavez, whose children attend the Magna Community Center preschool.

"There are an estimated 1,300 non-licensed day-care providers in the state, mostly women caring for neighbors' kids in their homes," Chavez said. "They are your real competition problem, not the county."

"Many of the working poor cannot afford private rates. If you close the county preschools they won't transfer their children to private licensed centers. They'll be forced to accept poor care, or the parents will have to quit work and go on the welfare rolls," said the Rev. Bob Busson, vicar general of the Salt Lake Catholic Diocese.

The board took the issue under advisement and will likely make a recommendation to the County Commission.