Aspen’s Kids First to scale back for second straight year | AspenTimes.com

Aspen’s Kids First to scale back for second straight year

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Kids First – the city of Aspen’s child-care program, which gives financial aid to working parents struggling to survive in a community with one of the highest costs of living in the nation – is planning a few eligibility changes to bring next year’s budget under control.

Those changes were partly forced by decisions made at the beginning of this year by a majority of Pitkin County commissioners, who decided to reduce eligibility requirements for the county’s child care program, consequently shifting more children – and related expenses – into the city’s program.

One of the major changes involves redefining the geographic boundaries for eligibility to participate in the program. The result will mean stripping eligibility from some families already served by the program, but not until June. Some families who were hoping to join later this year or 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,” said Shirley Ritter, executive director of Kids First.

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 never materialized.

“Regardless of whether we have a meeting with them or not, that’s the charge from my board is to figure out how to make this work in our budget,” Ritter said.

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The changes – which also include a reduction in coverage for the “second child” in a family with more than one child- won’t affect any families currently receiving assistance until June 1, the start of the Kids First fiscal year. But it immediately impacts those who are not enrolled but were hoping to join in December, the start of the program’s upcoming quarter, or next year. The next quarterly enrollment deadline is Nov. 1.

Ritter said the program’s advisory board recently voted to tighten its service area to only the Aspen city limits and the Urban Growth Boundary. Currently, the program serves 26 families, of which six live in unincorporated Pitkin County. Those six families represent 24 percent of the current Kids First quarterly family assistance budget of $16,224, she said.

The city’s program serves another eight families that were formerly eligible for the county’s program, which was scaled back last January because of an uncertain revenue situation coupled with fast-growing demand. It costs Kids First $93,444 annually to serve the eight families whose income exceeds the county program’s wage threshold.

Ritter will discuss the Kids First budget and her advisory board’s recommendations with the Aspen City Council during an upcoming work session on the 2012 budget. The meeting will start at 1 p.m. on Monday at City Hall.

Ritter said the board’s decision to redraw its service boundaries is basically final. The council is unlikely to step into the situation to ask for a major departure from the board’s recent plan. The council sets the budget but generally leaves policy decisions to her and the board, she said.

She stressed that the six families living in unincorporated areas of the county will still receive assistance through May. They will be given six months’ notice of the changes in eligibility rules, she said.

“We give families a lot of notice because it really has an impact on their lives and the decisions they’ll have to make,” Ritter said.

Those families won’t be eligible for the county’s program – the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program – because CCCAP only serves families living at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Before Pitkin County commissioners decided in January to reduce the income-level cap to 185 percent of the poverty level, families at or below 225 percent were eligible.

“We are still serving those families between the 185 percent and 225 percent level that the county used to serve,” Ritter said.

The county’s program, partially funded by the state, tends to serve the poorest families in the area, while the city’s program takes in those at slightly higher income levels.

During a county budget discussion Tuesday, Commissioner Rachel Richards expressed concern about the potential impact on families in unincorporated Pitkin County if Kids First tightens its service area.

“To stop serving people outside of the Urban Growth Boundary even though they may be employees in Pitkin County is disturbing to me,” Richards said.

Ritter said the changes will allow Kids First to continue the process of trying to bring its budget under better control over the next few years. The program derives money from a dedicated sales tax, but recently has had to dip into a reserve fund to meet rapidly growing demand from parents in dire need of financial aid for child care.

The Kids First advisory board also 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.

“For new families [entering the program], it goes into effect right away,” Ritter said. “For existing families, they are good [at the current rate] and qualified through next May. At the May 1 application deadline, the existing families will get 100 percent for the first child and 80 percent for the second child.”

She said the board decided to give a greater second-child percentage to families currently enrolled in the program because “they’ve already been in our system and our board felt like we owed an obligation to them.”

Last year, Kids First had to reduce its poverty level income cap from 560 percent to 400 percent, which left some eligible families to fend for themselves. Kids First also increased the share that families must pay for child care from the range of 10-15 percent to 14-16 percent.

“We are trying to more closely align our expenditures with our revenues,” Ritter said. “A year ago, we said, ‘Let’s try these things first. Maybe that will be enough.’ But it wasn’t.”

She said the board could have instituted other changes to reduce expenditures but decided against it. Those possibilities include a cap on the number of participating families and a waiting list.

In addition to reducing its income cap to 185 percent of the federal poverty level last January, the county set a 13-family cap on its program, which resulted in a waiting list.

“The Kids First board didn’t want to do a waiting list,” Ritter said. “We don’t cap [the number of participating families], and we take all the families that qualify.”

If there’s a silver lining in the cloudy child care funding picture, it is in the budget for the county’s CCCAP program. That’s because the county’s proposed 2012 budget includes $27,000 more for the program than it did last year, a figure that could possibly rise before the budget is finalized.

There’s also a recommendation from staff to lift the 13-family cap, a move that might help Kids First, given the fact that families that don’t meet county guidelines or are put on a waiting list are often referred to Kids First. Currently there are three families on the county’s waiting list.

“Policy decisions [on child-care funding] that are made by the county or by the city affect each other,” said Nan Sundeen, the county’s director of health and human services. “We’re still trying to work that out. In tough economic times, how does each jurisdiction make the most prudent and supportive decision that they can make?”

County commissioners will meet on Oct. 31 to go into greater depth on the budget for the county’s share of CCCAP funding. Decisions won’t become official until December, when commissioners adopt next year’s budget.

asalvail@aspentimes.com

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