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October 24, 2012
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Pitkin County assistance fund runs dry

ASPEN - With Pitkin County's emergency assistance fund out of money more than two months before the year is out, county commissioners voted 3-1 Tuesday to put another $4,000 into the fund established to help residents with one-time emergencies, from a rent payment to utility bill or transportation expense.

The additional money will come from the commissioners' discretionary fund.

Commissioner Jack Hatfield voted against the additional expenditure.

"I'm just not comfortable making this decision on the spur of the moment," he said.

Commissioner Rob Ittner was absent.

Two weeks ago, the emergency assistance fund, which began the year with $45,000 - $40,000 from the Healthy Community Fund and $5,000 from the El Pomar Foundation - still had about $8,500 available. Since that time, requests for help - mainly with rent assistance - have exhausted it, according to Nan Sundeen, the county's director of health and human services. It has no cash left, but some City Market food vouchers remain available, she said.

A tally two weeks ago indicated that 37 recipients had received a total of $29,375 in rent assistance and that 52 had received $2,575 in food help. Medical/dental expenses, utilities, bus transportation and gasoline expenditures made up the remainder of the $36,430 spent by that point.

Among the individuals receiving rent help were six people who are unemployed during the Hotel Jerome closure for renovation and residents of worker housing who were struggling to make homeowners association payments, Sundeen said. The fund isn't available for homeowner dues, but rent assistance can be provided so recipients can pay the other homeowner costs instead.

This year is not the first time the fund has helped employees who were out of work during the shutdown of a major local hotel, according to Sundeen, but the ramifications of the Jerome closure sparked discussion among commissioners about whether the employer should provide some of the help and whether Aspen's usual slew of offseason business closures regularly results in requests for assistance.

While affected employees at the Jerome could qualify for unemployment assistance, that payment wasn't necessarily enough to cover all expenses for some individuals or families, Sundeen said. The Jerome, which is scheduled to reopen in December, consulted with Health and Human Services before its August closure to make sure workers were taken care of, she said.

"We want to applaud the Jerome for calling us in advance and allowing us to help their employees," Sundeen said.

"It just shows the impact to the community when a major employer shuts down - for reasons that they need to," Commissioner George Newman said.

Applicants for help from the emergency assistance fund are almost always required to seek other forms of public assistance, as well, according to Sundeen. One-time payments from the fund are intended to provide short-term help in getting someone back on his or her feet.

The fund was established in 2009 to help local residents hit by the recession. It is funded by an annual allocation from the Healthy Community Fund, a voter-supported tax that raises money for a host of health and human services agencies and nonprofits. The proposed allocation to the emergency assistance fund next year is again $40,000.

The circumstances that lead to an application for emergency help - a hotel shutdown versus any other downturn in one's fortunes - is irrelevant, Commissioner Michael Owsley said.

"It's truly about people in need," he said. "As long as we're serving people in need, we're doing our job."

janet@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Oct 24, 2012 05:55AM Published Oct 24, 2012 12:37AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.