Childcare programs struggle to handle growing demand
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – More and more families in Aspen and Pitkin County are applying for public assistance for childcare, putting a heavy strain on the programs designed to assist them and creating a sense of urgency for policy changes that may limit the number of children that can be served.
The only alternative to policy changes would be finding an influx of money to support the programs, and such public and private sources are becoming harder to find amid a slowly rebounding economy, according to local program administrators.
A county commissioner work session is scheduled Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. to address issues surrounding the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, which this year is helping 14 area families through its traditional mix of state and county funds. By capping the number of families at 14, the program still would need to find an additional $67,923 just to cover costs through the remaining six months of the 2011 fiscal year.
By not setting a cap, and allowing the likelihood of four more households into the program sometime over the next six months, the estimated shortfall would be even higher, estimated at $79,323.
A few years ago, there was little demand for childcare assistance, said Nan Sundeen, director of health and human services for Pitkin County. But the recession and slow-moving economic rebound have intensified the need: from seven cases per month in 2009 to 16 cases currently. Though 14 families are currently enrolled in CCCAP in Pitkin County, two applications are pending.
“The demand for childcare services is so high,” Sundeen said Monday afternoon. “We just can’t handle the volume. We can’t afford to be this liberal with our program unless the funds come from somewhere else.”
Options that county commissioners will mull over include reducing the maximum household income levels of eligible families, or even reducing the rates paid to childcare providers.
An alternative recommended by Sundeen for the 2012 fiscal year – which may have the least impact on the county’s budget – would cap the number of participating households at eight, and reduce eligibility to a maximum 150 percent of the federal poverty level. As of now, the maximum is 225 percent of the poverty level.
Under her recommendation, the program would only face a $10,323 shortfall during the 2012 fiscal year. As for the 2011 shortfall estimated at $67,923, “The county is just going to be obligated for those dollars,” Sundeen said. “Under CCCAP rules, there’s no way around it. We are obligated to continue to serve those 14 families for another six months.”
Sundeen said the funding issue had been anticipated for several months. Other Colorado counties have been grappling with the same problem, and have responded by adjusting eligibility scenarios and reducing maximum income levels.
“We have to make policy changes now so that we won’t be over budget in 2012,” Sundeen said. “The commissioners will have to decide what to do about it. It’s a difficult decision because this program is a huge support to low-income working families.”
There are fears that changes in the county program will put a strain on the city of Aspen’s Kids First program, which helps 70 local families with childcare needs. Kids First, which is funded through a 0.45 percent city sales tax, has also struggled recently to meet burgeoning demand, said program director Shirley Ritter.
In fact, policy changes for Kids First were announced Monday. Effective June 1 for current families in the program, and last December for new applicants, the maximum income to qualify changes to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or $90,000 adjusted gross income, whichever is lower. Previously, the threshold was set at 560 percent of the poverty level.
Ritter said the decision was a difficult one for the Kids First advisory board. But it was necessary, she said, due to a decrease in city sales-tax revenue.
Further changes will include additional interviews for applicants and “stronger language to discourage any possible fraudulent use of public dollars,” Ritter said. The restrictions will keep the program viable and serve those in the community who need the program the most, she said.
Ritter said Kids First typically picks up where the CCCAP, which tends to handle the lowest-income families, leaves off. Therefore, if the county adopts new policies that cut off families because their incomes are too high, those families would likely drift into Kids First.
“It’s shifting the burden from the county’s budget to the city’s budget,” Ritter said.
In 2010, Kids First was $120,000 over its original budget of $321,000. “Our budget is set by City Council,” Ritter said. “We’ve been directed to try our darnedest to stay within our budget.”
Sundeen, in a memo prepared for Tuesday’s meeting, has laid out 11 funding scenarios for county commissioners to consider. But amid talk of all the funding options and domino effects from policy decisions made in both the short and long term, both Sundeen and Ritter also stress the big picture: that demand for public childcare assistance is growing rapidly, and it’s a concern for the entire community.
They point to the difficulties working families face in a community with such a high cost of living. “The end result of all these reductions is that families and children will suffer,” Ritter said in a memo to the county.
“We’ve really experienced some hard times – more than a lot of other places,” Sundeen said. “The problem we will continue to have in the community is covering low-income childcare programs.”
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