Aspen sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars in tobacco tax revenue
Aspen City Council being asked to put an excess of $500K into the community for possible mental health or human services
Since Aspen voters approved a tax on tobacco sales four years ago, the city has collected almost $1.3 million in revenue, which can be used to finance mental wellness programs, health and human services and substance use and addiction.
City of Aspen tobacco tax revenue collections:
2018 collections: $386,122.99
2019 collections: $402,986.80
2020 collections: $301,749.32
2021 Jan.-July collections: $183,338
Of that money, as much as $250,000 is awarded annually to the Aspen School District for a portion of the salary for a school counselor and a youth connector program managed by Aspen Family Connections, according to City Manager Sara Ott.
Aspen City Council last month approved $107,550 for 2021 as part of an intergovernmental agreement with the school district, which signifies a third year of service.
There’s an unencumbered balance in tobacco tax revenue of more than $500,000 that has yet to be distributed.
In 2022, the first $250,000 of this year’s revenue would go toward the Aspen School District, according to Ott.
Last month she recommended to City Council a special grant cycle next year specifically focused on getting tobacco tax revenue out to community partners.
“It’s time to get this money into the community for a community benefit,” she said. “Let’s get that money into the community and put it to use.”
That money will likely be used to improve access to professional mental health prevention and treatment services.
Human service agencies in Pitkin County report spending more than $9 million annually on mental health and substance use treatment, which includes federal, state and local funding.
Local funders dedicate more than $1 million of that amount through area programs, according to Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor.
Those kinds of resources are aimed at what Pitkin County Health and Human Services staff have characterized as a crisis in the community.
“Mental health and substance use have long been identified as the most significant health issues facing the people who live, work and play in Pitkin County,” according to a memo to council related to the IGA approved by council Aug. 24. “High rates of suicide, mixed messages surrounding the promotion of our ‘party town,’ high rates of depression and anxiety, sleep disturbances, financial pressures, lack of psychiatric care, lack of specialized support for marginalized populations and the high cost of treatment, as well as other issues have inspired several different nonprofit and private providers to try to step up and respond. The result has been a community perception of a fragmented and uncoordinated system of care.”
In response, Pitkin County, the Aspen School District, Aspen Valley Hospital, the city, Aspen Community Foundation, Aspen Skiing Co. and Colorado Mountain College started a strategic planning process with the purpose of rapidly improving access to mental health programs and services for area residents by changing the way local funding is allocated to programs, according to Pryor.
They realized fairly quickly that there existed a variety of contracts and charitable contributions in differing amounts for a range of different services.
In Pitkin County alone, various funding sources were provided to different mental health vendors through the Healthy Community Fund, the sheriff’s office and jail and through in-kind rent at the Shultz Health and Human Services building.
In December 2017, council approved an initial IGA for the next year that brought together multiple community organizations and funding sources to collaborate with a single vendor — Mind Springs Health — to provide a “mental health continuum of care.”
The IGA was subsequently renewed and approved in 2019 and 2020, and includes the city and county, the school district and the hospital, which pool their financial resources toward the same efforts.
In 2018, the multi-agency agreement served to bring new services to Pitkin County, like the first full-time mental health therapist to the school district.
The funds also increased capacity within existing services such as integrated health care, case management, psychiatric medication management, tele-psych access and crisis services.
The IGA was updated in 2020 to account for additional funds the city had collected through the tobacco tax.
As a result, the city is helping to pay for an increase in the funding for a school counselor from a 0.6 full-time employee to a full-time position, as well as $31,000 from Pitkin County for employee incentives for the three Minds Springs positions funded through the IGA.
Pitkin County serves as the fiscal agent through its public health department.
A single contract has been executed with Mind Springs Health as the lead agency for $525,810. Mind Springs Health will then subcontract to Mountain Family Health Centers.
Participating members of the IGA have agreed to provide funding in 2021 with contributions as follows: Aspen School District, $40,000; Aspen Valley Hospital, $73,275; city of Aspen, $107,550; and Pitkin County Healthy Community Fund, $304,985.
City Council continues to fund roughly $99,000 annually for a human services officer within the Aspen Police Department.
Council also has recently approved funding a second HSO position with the help of Harm Reduction grant funding.
The grant is providing about two-thirds of the cost of the second HSO, with the city pitching in about $34,000 annually.
The HSOs work closely with at-risk populations, including individuals with mental health conditions, and has a very close working relationship with Mind Springs Health.