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Pitkin County commissioners compromise on childcare

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
aspenpitkin.comNan Sundeen, director of health and human services for Pitkin County.
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ASPEN – Faced between making drastic cuts to a vital community program or throwing a lot of money at a problem, Pitkin County commissioners took the middle ground during a Tuesday work session.

The issue at hand was the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, which provides state and county money to help local working families with childcare needs. Greater demand has led to a projected $68,000 shortfall, not only for the remaining six months of the county’s 2011 fiscal year but also for the 2012 fiscal year that starts July 1.

Commissioners voiced an array of opinions, but a majority ended up supporting an option that would keep the program largely intact for the time being. The option would cap the number of enrolled households at 13 and reduce the maximum household income levels of eligible families from 225 percent of the federal poverty level to 185 percent.

Still, some commissioners were not happy with the compromise. They vowed to initiate discussions soon with the Aspen City Council to iron out funding issues related to CCCAP and also Kids First, the city’s childcare program.

“For the record, I do not agree with the decision, and I think we can do better,” commission chair Rachel Richards said after the compromise was reached on program limits.

Earlier in the meeting, Richards questioned the dichotomy of a government that regularly asks the community for more financial help while at the same time examines the possibility of cutting people off from public assistance. Her comment was made in reference to plans to expand the Pitkin County Library at an estimated cost of nearly $10 million, an initiative that may require voter approval to raise $5 million the county lacks for the project.

During the meeting, Nan Sundeen, director of health and human services for Pitkin County, gave commissioners an overview of the program and outlined options for dealing with the budget shortfall.

She noted that four years ago, when the economy was still sound, it was hard to find people who were eligible for CCCAP, and so the rules were changed to include households with higher incomes. The program grew from seven families per month in 2009, on average, to 14 families just last week. And costs have doubled correspondingly.

She said two more families became eligible on Monday, bringing the total number of families receiving county childcare assistance to 16. And three more applications are pending.

Changing the eligibility requirements for the 2012 fiscal year – a move other Colorado counties also have been forced to make because of growing demand – doesn’t change the eligibility of families currently enrolled. The rules state they must still be served by CCCAP until the end of the fiscal year, and notified of the upcoming change in eligibility criteria, Sundeen said.

She said the policy changes also will apply to new families seeking assistance during the remainder of the current fiscal year. Therefore, a household with income that’s greater than the 185 percent poverty level threshold would not only be ineligible for CCCAP starting July 1, but also in the time before that date.

“For new applications, the new policy goes into effect now,” Sundeen said.

Families that meet eligibility requirements, but can’t enroll because of the 13-family cap, will be put on a waiting list. Those households will join the program when a spot comes open, Sundeen said.

Even with the new rules, the county still faces an estimated $68,000 shortfall with the program this year and next. Most commissioners opted against an alternative recommended by Sundeen that would have reduced the shortfall to a little more than $10,000 in 2012 by capping the number of participants at eight and further reducing the maximum income threshold.

Shirley Ritter, director of Kids First, was on hand for Tuesday’s discussion. Her concern was that any policy changes at the county level will burden the city’s program, which serves 70 families. The county’s program tends to serve the lowest-income households.

Last month, the Kids First advisory board changed its eligibility criteria to offset growing demand for childcare, and now the maximum income to qualify is 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 a city-county discussion on childcare funding is a welcome idea. Sundeen said a brief overview of the issues likely will be presented during a joint work session already scheduled for Feb. 1.

Ritter said the Kids First board might be forced to make further policy changes in the wake of the county’s new eligibility requirements. The board will meet Feb. 4 to discuss the possible impact, she said.

The county’s decision on Tuesday was better than some alternatives, she said, and gives the city and county breathing room to look at both programs and to discuss other options.

Commissioner Michael Owsley didn’t agree with fellow commissioners on the compromise eligibility levels. He said there was plenty of money in the county’s reserve fund to cover extra costs associated with CCCAP.

His comments centered on the need to help children over moderate budget concerns. “It’s not a matter of compromising, because you’re not compromising about numbers, you’re compromising about the welfare of children,” Owsley said.

But earlier, Commissioner Jack Hatfield argued for a conservative approach. He said health care and childcare costs will continue to rise amid a slow-moving economy, and government can’t always be expected to handle increased demand.

“I understand the heart of this issue. Sometimes this job is not about heart,” he said.

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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