Pitkin County voters this fall could be asked to raise their property taxes as much as 19 percent to support social services and senior citizen assistance programs.
That’s the recommendation coming from Pitkin County Health and Human Services Director Nan Sundeen to the county commissioners. They have been unable to agree in recent discussions on how much, if at all, they want to ask voters to raise the tax. The elected officials are meeting today, aiming to make a final call on how much they want to ask of voters.
The commissioners had previously agreed they want to put it on the ballot, and ask voters to renew it through 2018.
Currently, the tax collects $4.19 on every $100,000 of county property value, raising $1.4 million in revenue in 2011. Sundeen is now pitching to raise the tax to $5 per $100,000 of value, which would produce an anticipated $1.77 million each year.
Last renewed in 2006, the Healthy Community Fund is set to expire at the end of 2012.
“What we did in 2006 I’d like to do again,” Sundeen told the commissioners earlier this month, “which is ask for what we need, and ask for what we anticipate we’ll need in three, four, five years.”
Demand for the types of assistance programs the fund supports has risen dramatically since the economic downturn.
In 2003, the fund backed 29 local agencies. This year, more than three times as many entities requested funding, and 61 got some. Dollar requests for support totaled more than $1.8 million this year.
Commissioner Rob Ittner had recommended keeping the tax flat and trying to provide services with less money. Commissioner Jack Hatfield said he’d go as high as $5.01. Commissioners George Newman and Rachel Richards said they would support raising it to as high at $5.50. Commissioner Michael Owsley said the county should raise it to as high as $6.
Setting the tax rate has proved vexing, as commissioners are both wary of asking too much of voters in the still-harsh economic climate, and as the tough times simultaneously cause demand for social services to rise.
In advance of today’s meeting, the health and human services department compiled “report cards” delineating how the Healthy Community Fund is spent, and what’s at stake for local citizens in need.
Pitkin County Senior services this year received nearly a quarter of the fund’s dollars — $345,000. The funding represents about half of the senior services department’s entire annual budget.
“We rely very heavily on the Health Community Fund,” said senior services director Marty Ames.
She added that she expects demand for their programs, like meals and transportation for seniors, to rise steadily in the years to come as the Aspen area’s population tilts more and more toward the elderly.
“Our costs will only continue to go up,” she said. “All you need to do is look at the demographics of Aspen and you see why there will be an increase of need for services for seniors.”
The fund put $431,000 this year into health programs including the Aspen Cancer Survivor Center for Health & Well-Being ($8,000); the Aspen Homeless Shelter ($15,000), and Community Health Services ($271,000). The fund awarded $7,000 to Planned Parenthood’s valley office and $9,000 for sex assault nurses stationed at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.
Mental health and substance abuse programs were funded with $221,000 in health tax dollars this year. The Aspen Counseling Center was given $78,000 of that, going toward serving 1,006 local clients in 2010. The Right Door, a case management service focused on substance abuse that is planning to close due to a lack of funding, served 1,140 local clients with $70,000 of Healthy Community Fund money.
Drug use prevention programs at Aspen middle and high school were completely funded with $38,100 from the Healthy Community Fund.
Community nonprofits also rely on funding from the tax, like the Buddy Program, which used $25,000 of funding this year.
Court-related entities likewise relied on the fund, including the legal assistance programs of Alpine Legal Services ($20,000), and the support for domestic violence and sex assault victims through RESPONSE ($28,000). RESPONSE reported directly serving 387 locals in 2010, and fielding 2,311 calls from locals on their hotline.
The commissioners have discussed narrowing the fund’s focus, to assure that all the tax dollars going into the community fund will directly serve locals in need. Sundeen is recommending no tax dollars be put toward her department’s overhead or staff costs.
As the commissioners debate the amount they want voters to tax themselves to support the fund, local assistance programs are largely facing dwindling dollars from private donors, the state of Colorado and the federal government.
“In a time when Congress is discussing cuts to ‘entitlement’ services, a local source such as HCF is critical to provide for essential human services,” reads a memorandum from Sundeen to the commissioners.
State law mandates the fall ballot be finalized by Sept. 2.