Aspen may dip into reserves to help fund childcare | AspenTimes.com

Aspen may dip into reserves to help fund childcare

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Aspen and Pitkin County elected officials spent 90 minutes in a Tuesday work session discussing a problem that’s going to take much more time to solve – the lack of money to cover the rapidly growing demand for public childcare assistance.

The City Council and Board of County Commissioners listened to a breakdown of the issues from Nan Sundeen, director of health and human services for the county, and Shirley Ritter, director of the city’s Kids First program. The county faces a $79,000 shortfall in its current fiscal year for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, or CCCAP. Even with a decision last month by commissioners to limit participation in the program, a similar or greater shortfall is estimated for the 2012 fiscal year.

Tuesday’s meeting, however, was called partly for the purpose of examining how new limitations in the county’s program will affect Kids First, whose board made eligibility reductions in December because of burgeoning demand for its childcare-funding services. Already the city has allowed Kids First to go over its 2011 budget by about $227,000, an amount that may or may not be enough to get through the year. About 70 families are enrolled in Kids First, and their childcare costs are only partially covered by the program.

Basically, families no longer eligible for the county’s program are expected to spill into the city’s program, which has led Sundeen, Ritter and other officials to call for discussions that will produce answers to the funding dilemma.

By the end of Tuesday’s meeting, no decisions were made. There was, however, a willingness to continue the dialogue and to consider delving into the Kids First reserve fund for capital projects in order to stave off further eligibility reductions in the city’s program.

“We are definitely anticipating that families no longer qualifying for the county program, or those who get put on a waiting list, will come to us,” Ritter said after the meeting. “We’ve already been getting calls. Whether it will be a few families or a crisis, I don’t know.”

Ritter said her advisory board will meet Friday to discuss options. She said it’s possible that the board may want to further reduce the maximum household income eligibility levels, which late last year were lowered from 560 percent of the federal poverty level to a 400 percent threshold, which roughly equates to $89,000 annual income for a family of four.

Another alternative is to ask the council to use part of the $2.5 million that lies in the Kids First capital reserve fund to deal with anticipated future shortfalls. Or, there could be a blending of both options.

In January, the county lowered its maximum household income level from 225 percent to 185 percent, and placed a cap on participating families at 13. Those changes take effect with the new fiscal year on July 1; the 17 families currently enrolled in the program (two others are pending) will continue to receive assistance through the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year unless they drop out voluntarily.

Ritter said she and Sundeen will also meet soon and make a concrete recommendation to city and county officials, probably before April, about how to proceed. “We have to make a decision before (July) because there are some important budget decisions to make,” Ritter said.

The Kids First program relies on a dedicated portion of city sales-tax revenue. While those revenues have been improving over the last year, it’s not enough to meet working families’ growing need for childcare assistance.

“For some people in the valley, things are looking up,” Ritter said with regard to the economy. “But among the families in Kids First, we aren’t seeing incomes rising.”

Ritter pointed out the negative residual effects of not finding funding solutions for the childcare programs. Some working families may simply leave the community for other jobs. Some will try to live with relatives and friends to reduce their cost of living. Others will send their children to unlicensed daycare providers.

During the work session, councilmen and commissioners offered a variety of thoughts and opinions on the matter.

Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland said the point of having a reserve is to use it during hard times. He said the economy appears to be coming around, as evidenced by a rise in sales tax collections and development application filings. Until the economy is fully back on track, it makes sense to use the reserve fund to help those in need, he said.

Ireland described child-care programs as “a Clintonesque, moderately Republican notion” that enables people to be part of the workforce. “And we want people to be part of our workforce,” the mayor said.

The city and county are “inextricably linked,” Ireland said. “We ought to, on a temporary basis, look after our most needy. We are a wealthy place. We are blessed. We are moving forward.”

But Commissioner Jack Hatfield, echoing remarks he made during last month’s county discussion, reiterated that government shouldn’t strive to be “all things to all people.”

“We’re throwing a lot of numbers around here, but money doesn’t grow on trees,” he said. “Somewhere along the way, we’ve got to draw the line and I thought we already did.”

Commissioner Michael Owsley noted that the county decision to reduce eligibility in its program wasn’t unanimous as he and Rachel Richards argued for dipping into the county’s reserve fund to keep the CCCAP program at its previous levels.

“I can’t draw a line through a child,” Owsley said in reference to Hatfield’s comment.

Councilman Steve Skadron said so far, the issue has been difficult for him to fully understand. “I don’t have my hands around it,” he said.

Following the meeting, Sundeen said it would take time for city officials to decide how they want to deal with the problem. She added that she didn’t get a sense that a majority of county commissioners are interested in changing last month’s decision to reduce eligibility in CCCAP.

“We’ll have to see what the Kids First board does and then revisit this in the spring,” she said.

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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