Funding squeeze for childcare in Aspen, Pitkin County

Andre Salvail
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Rustin Gudim/Aspen Times WeeklyThe children may sleep soundly during naptime at the Early Learning Center in Aspen, but many local parents are losing sleep over looming cuts to government childcare assistance programs.

ASPEN – When the directors of the Aspen and Pitkin County childcare-assistance programs spoke earlier this year about the rapid increase in demand for their services – and the lack of money to cover that demand – they weren’t joking around or playing a bureaucratic game to get elected officials to open the funding spigot.

Without extra money, they said, the programs would have to change their eligibility requirements, resulting in a cap on the number of families served. They said working families would be adversely affected, receiving less assistance for their childcare needs. They said children would have to be shuffled from one program to another, depending on which program had already reached its limit and which one still had availability under the new rules.

And, as Aspenite and working mother Mary Harlan will attest, what they said was true.

Harlan, a Centennial resident with a 7-month-old infant, was the first Pitkin County resident to be turned down by the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP). The new rules determined that her family income was too great to qualify for the program.

“I was just devastated, crying in her office,” Harlan said in reference to her visit with the Eagle County public assistance technician who also handles Pitkin County CCCAP registration.

Harlan said she and her boyfriend, Samuel’s father, take home $3,500 a month. Of that amount, $1,600 goes to rent and $1,000 is spent on childcare, leaving $900 to pay other bills and feed and clothe the family.

“Basically, she said we were over the new limit by $200 but by the old standards we would have been under by $400,” Harlan said.

Harlan works 40-50 hours a week as a mountain guide and assistant manager of a local retail shop. Her significant other is a carpenter who has not been able to find construction work for 14 months. Recently, though, he found a part-time job tuning skis.

She is troubled by the fact that county officials are looking to spend $10 million to renovate the public library, but couldn’t find extra money out of more than $2 million in their general fund reserves, or “rainy-day fund,” to cover demand for childcare assistance.

“They want to spend $10 million to renovate the library, but then they say, ‘sorry, we can’t give another $100,000 to child care.’ To me, that just doesn’t make sense,” Harlan said.

County Commissioner Michael Owsley argued for a major increase in funding for CCCAP without limiting enrollment when the issue came up in January, but a majority of commissioners chose a more fiscally conservative route. In actuality, the county will cover some $80,000 in extra costs this year because of the burgeoning demand, and faces a similar deficit in its next fiscal year, even with changes in program eligibility and a cap placed on the number of families in the program.

“I encouraged the board to spend the money to cover the increasing costs,” Owsley said. “They were reluctant to go all the way.

“These are desperate times and in my point of view, it will take some extra money on the part of the county – which we have – to take care of this terrible crisis,” he said. “I’m not sure there’s any greater agony than not being able to care for your child.”

Situations like Harlan’s are expected to become a lot more common now that changes in the county’s CCCAP program, as well as the city of Aspen’s Kids First program, have been adopted.

Directors of both programs said demand for their services began to rise drastically in mid-2010. Kids First, which serves about 70 local families and is funded through a local sales tax, first started making changes in December, reducing its maximum income threshold from 560 percent of the federal poverty level to 400 percent of the poverty level, which equates to a household income of $90,000 for a family of four. (The adjustments to the federal standards are necessary, officials said, because of the high rents and overall cost of living in Aspen.)

Kids First Director Shirley Ritter said those changes had to be made so the program could continue to serve families with the greatest financial need. Eligibility requirements had to be limited so the program would not exceed its annual budget.

In 2010, the program paid out more than $440,000 in financial aid to help families with childcare – and was $120,000 over budget. In comparison, Kids First provided about $310,000 in financial aid in 2009. The increase from one year to the next was a whopping 43 percent.

Pitkin County’s CCCAP program, while serving fewer families, grew just as rapidly. In January, Nan Sundeen, director of the county’s department of health and human services, brought the matter to county commissioners. Six months into the state’s fiscal year, most of the state and local money for the program had been spent.

Sundeen presented various options to commissioners at a Jan. 18 work session. They could keep eligibility requirements at the same level – a threshold of 225 percent of the federal poverty level – by delving into the county’s rainy-day fund for an estimated $80,000 this year and possibly a similar or greater amount next year. Or, they could lower the maximum allowable household income and put a cap on the number of participating families, which still would mean going $80,000 over budget this year but perhaps a smaller deficit in 2012.

In the end, despite objections from commissioners Rachel Richards and Owsley, commissioners opted to scale back program participation, capping the number of eligible families at 13 and dropping the income threshold to 185 percent.

The conservative approach was championed by Commissioner Jack Hatfield, who held the line that “government should not be all things to all people.” Immediately after the decision, Ritter and Sundeen openly acknowledged that changes in the county program, which tends to serve families at the lowest local income levels, would mean a shift of the funding burden to Kids First.

“We intend to put a supplemental request for additional funding in front of City Council,” Ritter said. “In the course of the year I have no doubt we’ll get at least four more families [formerly in CCCAP].”

Kids First has a relatively stable funding source, a dedicated local sales tax, while the county’s CCCAP program relies partly on state monies, which could fluctuate from year to year. Still, Ritter needs council approval to dip into the program’s reserves.

Changes in both programs go into effect soon: May 1 for Kids First, July 1 for CCCAP. All the participating families have had to be notified that the maximum income thresholds have changed – meaning several families won’t make the cut in both programs, and may have to pay 100 percent of their childcare costs.

More than likely, though, those who are no longer eligible for CCCAP will try to shift into Kids First. Ritter estimates about six families currently in Kids First will be above the 400 percent federal poverty level, meaning they’ll be forced to pay all of their childcare costs.

Time will tell if demand will remain high. The local economy is said to be slowly recovering, but officials say there may be a yearlong lag between certain aspects of the recovery – such as higher sales tax collections and retail sales – and an increase in jobs and wages, which would reduce demand for social services.

The formula for deciding who qualifies and who doesn’t, whether under the old rules or the new ones, is complicated. At a recent joint work session of the City Council and Board of County Commissioners, some officials admitted that they didn’t fully understand the issue. Another meeting will be held before summer so that officials can fully assess what the shortfalls will be.

“I think the math is complicated – it wasn’t clear to everybody at the meeting how everything fit together – but the philosophical analysis is simple,” said Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland. “We have reserves. As the economy improves, you can use those reserves. The time to use them is when people are having hard times.”

The city’s program isn’t under nearly as much pressure as the county’s, he said. If the county could fully meet its CCCAP demand, there would be considerably less pressure on Kids First, Ireland said.

Overall, the two governments need to work together, Ireland said.

“We want to make an effort to fund childcare. The community has historically been behind it,” he said.

Denied from participating in the Pitkin CCCAP program, Mary Harlan was referred by the Eagle County technician to Kids First. She said she remained persistent, submitted all of the necessary paperwork, and she and her infant son Samuel soon qualified for the city program.

Now Samuel spends most of his weekdays at the Early Learning Center in the city-owned Yellow Brick Building at the corner of North Garmisch and West Hallam streets. Kids First is headquartered in the same building.

“We just got a scholarship,” Harlan said. “They are very available and they are very open about their program and they are doing everything they can to get help to as many families as they can.”

Through the financial aid provided by Kids First, she estimates that she will save about $600 monthly in childcare costs.

Tuition for her son at the Early Learning Center is $57 a day, Harlan said. “Last week, they told us they could cover $42 of it. Then today, they told us they could only cover $35 of it because they had to make cuts again.” (The Kids First Advisory Board met in the interim to make changes to the percentage families are expected to pay, in anticipation of more families applying for financial aid at the annual May 1 deadline.)

But Harlan said she’s not complaining, and she feels lucky to qualify for the assistance.

Richards lamented the fact that government doesn’t do more to help families with children younger than kindergarten age. Without financial aid, the cost of childcare at a reputable, accredited facility can run anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 annually for a single child.

“These days, very few families can afford to be a one-income family,” said the county commissioner. “When you decide to have kids, I think everyone would prefer to have a stay-at-home parent and do childcare at home until they’re ready to go into the publicly funded school system. But we’re not there.

“The question is, why do you start public education at kindergarten, and zero assistance up until that point, when families need to have two incomes to survive?”

Ireland said it’s important to help out working families so they can remain in the area.

“The people who need childcare – especially women – you don’t want them to leave the workforce, because it’s more difficult to reenter the workforce in this economy,” Ireland said. “We will need that workforce as the economy continues to heat up.”

The only drawback to working full-time and receiving childcare assistance, Harlan said, is that she won’t get to spend much time with Samuel.

“It’s a real bummer I can’t be with my son more,” she said.

Harlan acknowledged that it’s tough to live in an expensive community like Aspen, but she’s faring better than she did when she lived in Summit County because she gets more mountain-guide work in the Roaring Fork Valley. She hopes local elected officials realize how much help working families need with childcare.

“Who are these people, making these decisions?” she asked. “I want to see if they are living on $800 a month after paying just rent and childcare.”