Aspen mayor wants to streamline child care
October 18, 2011
ASPEN – Mayor Mick Ireland on Monday suggested that the governments of Pitkin County and other local municipalities need to work with Aspen to pool their resources and raise their levels of commitment to area working families struggling with the high costs of living and raising children in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
His comments, made during an Aspen City Council work session on the 2012 budget, follow a recent decision by the advisory board of Kids First, the city of Aspen’s child-care program, to tighten its service boundaries in the face of budget constraints.
Basically, decisions by Pitkin County commissioners in January to reduce eligibility in its state-mandated child care assistance program have created financial issues for the city’s program, which was forced to accept families formerly served by the county. Both the city and county programs have seen rapidly growing demand for assistance in the wake of the 2008-09 economic downturn.
By scaling back its territory to the city limits and the Urban Growth Boundary, Kids First no longer will be providing child-care assistance to families residing in Snowmass Village, Basalt or unincorporated Pitkin County, unless one parent works in Aspen or within the UGB. As of now, the decision only affects a handful of families, but the impact is expected to be greater in the winter and spring when the programs typically see a larger number of requests for child-care aid.
For example, Kids First director Shirley Ritter told council members Monday that her program currently serves 26 families, of which four or five would be eliminated by the new service-territory rule. But in early 2012, the program could serve as many as 60 families, and up to one dozen might be prevented from inclusion because they don’t meet the geographic requirements.
Ireland asked Ritter to draft a letter to other jurisdictions – the county, Snowmass Village and Basalt – asking for discussions among staff and elected officials “to create a common application and a common set of standards” for families throughout the county seeking public money for child care.
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“Where you live [shouldn’t] determine eligibility,” Ireland said.
Last week, the mayor told The Aspen Times that he wanted local governments to explore the possibility of a single entity that would be in charge of reviewing applications and providing financial assistance to families needing help with child care.
“The fact is you have two programs with different standards of eligibility and different standards for financial qualification,” Ireland said. “There really should be one child care program. I think this is a program that could be administered by either the city with money from the county or by the county with money from the city. We should try to create a uniform set of standards and a single administrator.”
Council members did not comment on the mayor’s suggestion. Ireland said he understood if council members were having difficulty with the complexities of the issue because he often does, as well.
In January, because of the great demand for child-care funding, county commissioners decided to cap the number of eligible families in its program at 13. That cap is likely to be lifted soon, based on recent discussions at county budget talks.
Also, the county is looking to put more money, $27,000 or more, into its financial share of the program, which also receives state funds. But so far, a majority of the commissioners appear to be unwilling to loosen eligibility requirements that would include families with income above 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
Should the county return to its previous 225 percent income threshold, some of the burden on the city’s program – which serves families at up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level – would be eased.
In the face of growing demand in late 2010, Kids First reduced its poverty level income cap from 560 percent to 400 percent, which left some eligible families to fend for themselves. The county, which also faced more requests for aid through its program, instituted its 13-family cap and 185 percent threshold shortly thereafter.
The city’s program serves another six families that were formerly eligible for the county’s program. Those families have combined income that exceeds the county program’s new wage threshold of 185 percent of the federal poverty level or less.
Ireland said it’s important for the city and county to continue to serve families with child care needs because the community faces a workforce shortage in the near future.
The city doesn’t have a plan for importing more workers from downvalley or Grand Junction, and wouldn’t want to explore such a possibility, he said. In other words, the people working in Aspen and Pitkin County should be given the opportunity to live here, too.
“Our aging population is demanding more services,” Ireland said. “And we have more people with wealth who can command personal service, and we will have fewer people to provide those services, notwithstanding the temporary effect of the recession.
“The people who use the child care programs have a pretty significant need,” the mayor added. “We want people to get child care so they can participate in the workforce. If people go out of the workforce – to take care of their kids for a few years, for example – getting back into the workforce as the child goes into the school system is more difficult.”
The result of the changes at Kids First will mean stripping eligibility from some families currently served by the program, but not until June. Some families who were hoping to join later this year or early next year will be affected immediately.
“We had to do what we had to do, because we didn’t see the county changing its policies, but we need to balance our expenditures with our revenues and maintain a commitment to help the families that need the most help,” Ritter said last week.
County and city elected officials and staff had planned to hold a joint work session during the summer to grapple with their similar child-care funding issues. But it failed to come about.
The Kids First advisory board also has recently decided to make another change that will help to balance the books. For families with more than one child, the program will pay 100 percent of what it determines to be the “qualified cost” – a term representing the eligible grant amount, not the total cost of child care – for the first child.
For the second child, the program will cover 50 percent of the “qualified cost,” which amounts to a reduction. The city program has many families with two children.
Asked what she thought of Ireland’s suggestion of a single entity, Ritter said it’s legally possible. But she said it could create “administrative nightmares” because the county’s program relies on state-administered federal money for which there are many guidelines and restrictions.