City of Aspen lights up nearly $1M plan to combat tobacco, substance use

Aspen City Council on Tuesday signed off on a multi-year plan to spend almost $1 million of nicotine tax proceeds on substance abuse, addiction and prevention aimed mostly at local youth and their parents.

The city has just over $839,000 it has collected in 2018 and 2019 as a result of a voter-approved tobacco tax, which is earmarked specifically for financing health and human services, tobacco-related health issues, and addiction and substance abuse education, according to CJ Oliver, the city’s environmental health and sustainability director.

In 2018, the city began collecting a 40% sales tax on non-tobacco nicotine products, and $3 on a pack of cigarettes with incremental increases annually.

The city didn’t plan to initiate any new municipal government programs with the money, but rather build on existing ones that could make a greater impact on the areas specified in the ballot language, according to Oliver.

He and Katherine Sand, director of Aspen Family Connections, a one-stop family resource center in association with the local school district, presented a plan to council during its work session Tuesday.

It is designed to fill a gap in services that was discovered as health specialists and government officials worked on the tobacco tax three years ago, as well as the ban on all flavored tobacco and vaping products last year.

“This is an amazing opportunity for us,” Sand said. “We are harnessing the work that’s already being done” and building off of it.

A $5,000 district-wide survey of families also is underway that will assess the scale of prevention needs, barriers and attitudes. That includes parenting education and access to after-school and summer activities.

Council agreed to move forward with the overall plan, which includes $175,000 in staffing.

The first is an $80,000, three-year contract for a “youth voice/teen connector” for middle and high school students to form a youth advisory council, among other tasks.

Sand said a key part of the plan is to tap into teenagers and the issues they face.

“We don’t talk to them enough, we don’t hear from them enough,” she said, adding that giving them a voice to help guide policy will empower them.

Another $60,000 annually will go to two contract positions for “early childhood family connectors” to conduct outreach within the community. Those positions are tasked with developing initiatives to build on existing programs and address gaps that target prevention with young children.

Additional staffing, to the tune of $35,000 each year, will be required for parenting education, new events, coaching and other specific tasks.

Another $74,500 will go to training and direct support to existing programs.

The annual cost for the schools-based program is $286,400 — $250,000 for Aspen Family Connections’ activities, plus $36,400 for mental health clinical services.

The city is working with Mind Springs Health, the provider of mental health services, to explore funding additional staff hours at the Aspen School District for a mental health clinician.

The additional funding would be to bring the position up to a full-time role rather than part-time.

The school plan represents 66% of the tobacco tax revenue for 2018.

Oliver said he is working on options to bring to council to address services and programs for adults, and a focus on mental health and substance abuse that will spend down the remaining 24% of the money.

Some of it will likely get put in a reserve account in anticipation that the revenue declines, which is ultimately what officials want because that means the tax is deterring people from imbibing.

It’s already happened — tobacco tax revenue was $436,622 in 2018 and it was $403,589 last year.

The school plan will roll over each year, and adapt to revenue levels and needs.

Council members said they are excited to see the program take off, which will happen this spring once the city enters into an intergovernmental agreement with the school district.

Sand cautioned that while efforts will launch early this year, it’s a long-term approach.

“The taxpayers deserve something to happen but prevention is a long game,” she said. “I think it’s a really important direction for the school district to be taking.”