Request to Pitkin County: Increase funding for child-care program | AspenTimes.com

Request to Pitkin County: Increase funding for child-care program

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Shirley Ritter

ASPEN – The debate over government financial support for child-care services in Aspen and Pitkin County – a microcosm of the larger discussion between city and county governments over social services funding responsibilities – continues this week.

The director of the city’s Kids First program, Shirley Ritter, soon will ask county commissioners to rethink their recent change in local policy for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP), a state program administered by the county.

Faced with the problem of rapidly rising costs during a January meeting, a majority of county commissioners decided to cap the number of families that can participate in the program at 13 and also reduced the maximum income eligibility requirement to 185 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). Previously, there was no cap on participation and the maximum eligibility requirement was 225 percent. Those changes went into effect on July 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year. The city and county operate on a calendar-year system.

Ritter said the changes have put a strain on Kids First: Eight families no longer eligible for CCCAP had to seek help through the city program, which serves families at slightly higher income levels. But, like the county program, Kids First is also over budget and might have to dip further into its reserves in order to meet the demand from struggling families.

Ritter is preparing a memorandum for an Aug. 16 city-county work session on the topic. But Nan Sundeen, the county’s director of health and human services, will provide an update on the issue during a county meeting set for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Plaza One meeting room in the county building on Main Street.

Despite big demand, rising costs for the programs and the government money crunch, both Ritter and Sundeen advocate helping working families with their child-care needs. Recent census data suggests that fewer young adults in the city and county than 10 years ago and a rising percentage of seniors.

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“It’s very difficult to live here, pay rent or a mortgage, and even just keep up with the cost of having a family otherwise,” Ritter said. “It is not an easy place for a working family to live.”

“Both Kids First and Pitkin County are struggling with the dramatic increase in demand for child-care assistance,” Sundeen wrote in a memo to commissioners in advance of the Tuesday meeting. “It is difficult to say ‘who should pay’ for child care assistance when the increase in demand has resulted in significant expenditures for both sides.

“Because Pitkin County has historically been the primary advocate for low-income families and has been the champion for maximizing utilization of support programs that help people achieve self sufficiency, staff recommends that Pitkin County assume the responsibility for our most vulnerable low-income families by supporting them more liberally in CCCAP,” Sundeen added.

The funding problem was highly anticipated earlier this year, when the county changed CCCAP eligibility guidelines, Ritter said. Kids First currently serves 29 families and 41 children, but eight of those families would have been eligible for the county CCCAP program under the former policy since their incomes fall between 185 percent and 225 percent of the federal poverty level, she said.

The cost that Kids First has absorbed by picking up those eight families (representing 11 children) is $23,361 each quarter, or $93,444 annually if the rate were to remain constant. Participation varies from quarter to quarter.

“In light of that, the Kids First Advisory Board is recommending a compromise that the county meet us in the middle, and increase the income cap to 200 percent. Of course, that’s up to the county commissioners,” Ritter said.

Kids First, which is funded through a dedicated sales tax, has been grappling with its own issues related to demand and rising costs. Late last year, its advisory board recommended an income-cap reduction from 560 percent to 400 percent FPL, which went into effect May 1. The result was that nine or more local working families no longer were eligible for Kids First.

Of the 48 families applying to Kids First for assistance, 29 were deemed eligible. Nine were officially over the income threshold, but Ritter suspects that more families didn’t apply because they thought they would be rejected based on income. As for the others who didn’t qualify, some had incomplete applications, some were jobless and a few were referred back to the CCCAP program.

Just because a family has a combined income of 400 percent over the poverty level doesn’t mean it is swimming in money, Ritter pointed out. Roughly, 400 percent equates to gross income of $90,000 annually for a family of four.

Ritter cited an example of a family that applied for help, but at 417 FPL was just barely over the Kids First cap. Formerly, its costs were $1,083 monthly for two children enrolled in a local child-care program five days a week. Under the old rules, Kids First picked up the remainder of the tab.

“Now that they are no longer qualified, they are looking at a monthly cost for child care of $2,557,” Ritter explained. “Now, if they don’t make different choices, they will be paying 33 percent of their monthly adjusted gross income on child care.”

She estimates that given income taxes, house payment and child-care expenses, the family will be left with around $700 a month to cover health insurance, food, car payment, car insurance and gas, phone, electric, heat and clothing costs.

And there are other families in a similar situation, she said.

“I guess we can’t help everybody and there is always going to be a cap somewhere, but for so long it has been a part of our mission,” Ritter said.

Just about anywhere else, $90,000 in combined income would be considered a good wage. But not in the Aspen area, Ritter said.

“With the cost of housing and child care here, it’s just too difficult and too stressful for these families,” she said.

In today’s economy, parents rarely have the option of quitting a job to stay home with the kids, or leaving the area to find another job, Ritter said.

Sundeen’s report to commissioners contains estimates of the extra costs of either removing the 13-family cap but keeping intact the 185 percent-or-lower FPL requirement or increasing the FPL cap to 200 percent as Ritter has suggested.

With no change to the CCCAP policy, the county will still be a projected $60,351 over budget for the 2012 fiscal year. By removing the cap on the number of eligible families, the county will go $89,619 over budget. And if it were to vote to “compromise” per Ritter’s request, increasing eligibility to 200 FPL or lower, it would go $148,155 over budget, according to estimates.

The question is: From where would the extra money come? An option mentioned in the past is the county’s general-fund reserve. The county’s CCCAP program will be over budget in the current fiscal year, but money transferred from Eagle and Moffat counties will help offset the added expense. There’s no guarantee that a surplus in state money from other counties will exist next year to alleviate Pitkin County’s child care crunch in the 2012 fiscal year.

A bigger question revolves around whether commissioners are of a mindset to reevaluate their child care-funding commitment. In the recent past, Rachel Richards and Michael Owsley have shown support for putting more money into the program, while the three other commissioners have called for a more conservative approach.

Ritter said the discussion is likely to run beyond Tuesday’s update and the Aug. 16 work session. It might not be settled until the city and county start tackling their 2012 budgets this fall.

At the same time, the city and county are grappling over issues related to the county’s Healthy Community Fund. There is a strong possibility that the city will reduce or eliminate its 2013 funding for local agencies that fall under the county’s health and human services umbrella – a move that could force the county to pick up the slack.

A property tax – roughly $4.20 on every $100,000 of assessed value, expected to generate $1.4 million in 2011 – supports the fund. But the six-year tax expires in 2012. The county provides the revenue to a variety of area social services agencies, such as senior programs, protective services for children, help for battered and abused women, hospice care, mental-heath counseling and more.

The county might seek to increase the tax, which would require voter approval. But until the city provides an answer on whether it will continue to provide a $425,000 annual supplement to support those same services, county officials don’t know how much of a tax increase will be necessary.

asalvail@aspentimes.com

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