ASPEN - City of Aspen and Pitkin County officials on Tuesday attempted to iron out differences of opinion regarding the city's future support for county Health and Human Services grants to area nonprofit agencies, but no firm decisions were reached.
For several years, the city and county have provided financial aid to many of the same area nonprofits, but the county relies on a dedicated property tax to cover its share. At a July 2011 joint work session of the City Council and Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, city officials expressed a desire not to provide any money for the grants after 2012.
Those plans changed, and now the city is willing to provide $300,000 in 2013 and $200,000 in 2014 but still wants to eliminate the subsidy in 2015. County officials say the $300,000 for 2013 is still about $80,000 short of what is needed and they are adamant that the city continue to supplement the fund in the future.
City Manager Steve Barwick has characterized the issue as one of "double taxation." A county property tax, renewed in November 2011, assists the nonprofits through a county program called the Healthy Community Fund. The tax will cost taxpayers $5.55 on each $100,000 of assessed value on residential property in the county starting in 2013, raising an estimated $1.9 million annually.
Barwick and other city officials have pointed out that because the revenue comes primarily from Aspen landowners, the city should not be required to provide an annual subsidy toward the fund. The city's contribution peaked at $453,610 in 2010 and ranged between $215,100 in 2005 and $380,210 this year.
"It simply is not sustainable for the city," Barwick said during Tuesday's City Council work session, which many county officials attended.
He said plans to decrease and eventually eliminate the city subsidy for the nonprofits aided through the Healthy Community Fund have been discussed at public budget sessions over the past four years.
"We've tried to make it widely known," he said.
But Michael Connolly, of the Valley Partnership for Drug Prevention, said he had no idea such changes were on the horizon.
"We've already budgeted that money (for 2013)," he said. "There's no wiggle room in our budgets."
Former Mayor Helen Klanderud also spoke at the meeting, arguing that since the nonprofits in the program serve a disproportionate number of city residents, the city's subsidy is warranted.
The agencies facing revenue cuts are vital in providing services for those with mental-health, substance-abuse and homelessness issues, she said.
"The strength of this community relies on the strength of its people," she said. "We're only as strong as the weakest person."
Mayor Mick Ireland said a better long-term solution is necessary because the city can't keep coming up with money out of its general fund to support social services.
He brought up the idea of another dedicated property tax that would raise $600,000 annually at a cost of $20 per $1 million of assessed value. Ireland also suggested that the nonprofits themselves need to determine whether there is duplication of the services they provide with an eye toward becoming more efficient and eliminating waste.
"We're putting everybody at risk (by approving money on a year-to-year basis)," he said. "You can't run a business that way, and you can't run a government that way, either."
The organizations need to work more closely together, he said, just as the city is willing to work with the county on the issue. He said anecdotes about how a certain agency helped a certain individual or family aren't enough of a reason to provide funding to a social-service agency.
"We have to govern by reason, not anecdote," Ireland said.
Pitkin County commissioners briefly discussed the city's proposal Tuesday, a few hours before the city's work session on the topic.
Commissioner Jack Hatfield said he was "hugely disappointed" with the city's move to strip its funding from health and human-service organizations.
"It's just not right," he said. "I think it's critical that municipalities have a role. I don't buy this double-taxation argument that the city's using. We're all in this together."
Hatfield added that he found it "unbelievable that the city could be moving in a direction that I believe is contrary to the values of their population and the values of our population."
Commissioner Rachel Richards said that as a former City Council member and former mayor, she was "deeply discouraged by the values this seems to represent." At the council's meeting, she added, "The real problem here is a dissolving of partnerships."
City officials said they would be willing to help raise the 2013 subsidy level of $300,000 to the $380,000 that was provided this year, but only if the county matches it dollar for dollar.
In other words, the city would provide $40,000, and the county would match it with $40,000. County officials said they would take the proposal back to the commissioners for further review.