Hard times hit Pitkin County | AspenTimes.com

Hard times hit Pitkin County

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Economic hard times are forcing more and more Pitkin County residents to seek public assistance ” a boost in demand that leaves the county facing $58,286 in additional costs this year to process requests for food stamps and the like.

Pitkin County commissioners will be asked Tuesday to boost the county’s contract with Eagle County, which provides public assistance services in Pitkin County, from $118,806 to $177,092. In addition, Pitkin County is now facing projected costs of $232,170 to provide the services in 2010.

The county contracts with Eagle County to handle applications and its caseload for food stamps, Medicaid, child-care assistance and other programs. Staff is available in Aspen twice a week and daily in El Jebel. Most of the actual programs are funded through the state or federal government, but the administrative costs are borne by the county.

The added $58,286, requested by Eagle County, will pay for an additional full-time employee to assist with Pitkin County’s caseload, plus one-fifth of a supervisory position to oversee what will be two case workers assigned to Pitkin County.

The original budget to administer the services this year was based on a caseload of about 165 active cases per month with an average of 15 new applications and 10 “re-determinations” per month, as well as about 40 Low Income Energy Assistance Program applications per heating season.

Pitkin County’s active caseload has increased more than 50 percent ” from 153 to 260 ” from the first quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2009, and applications are up 116 percent for the same period, according to Nan Sundeen, county health and human services director.

Between January 2008 and January 2009, Pitkin County’s food stamps caseload increased 104 percent ” the biggest jump in the state, followed by Eagle County at close to 77 percent, she said.

Unemployment in the county climbed from 3.7 percent in December 2008 to 4.1 percent in March and an offseason spike in unemployment is expected, as seasonal ski jobs end but summer jobs aren’t yet available. Spring job losses will likely mean seasonal employees will seek assistance along with a local demographic that isn’t accustomed to applying for help to pay for shelter, heat and food for their families. Middle-class households that have suffered layoffs and reduced employment hours are turning to assistance programs ” many for the first time, Sundeen said.

“Not only is the number of applications increasing, but so is the complexity of the issues facing these households,” Sundeen wrote in a memo to commissioners. “The households requesting support today previously had friends and family who could provide assistance to get through these tough periods. Today, those friends and family are also experiencing the same issues and can no longer help.

“Eagle County staff are faced with Pitkin County households that have unpaid shelter expenses in the thousands of dollars, no heat or are facing a shutoff, no food and no medical benefits to access medical care for themselves or their children,” she wrote.

There may be state dollars available to cover some or all of the increased staffing costs Pitkin County will incur, but for now, the additional budget expense would come from county coffers.

Public assistance programs, however, bring dollars back into the community, according to Sundeen. For example, the food assistance program estimates that for every $1 in benefits paid out, the community sees $1.84 in spending. For the first quarter of 2009, $34,000 in food assistance benefits were paid to Pitkin County residents, which translates to more than $62,000 in spending.

The commissioners’ discussion on the contract for public assistance services begins at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Plaza One meeting room in the Pitkin County Courthouse annex building.


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