On this Thanksgiving weekend, if you work for, or rely upon, a health and human services nonprofit in or around Aspen, you may be feeling underappreciated. Last week the city of Aspen moved forward with its three-year plan to phase out almost all of its general fund grants to such organizations, which collectively provide direct health and human services to residents and visitors of Aspen and Pitkin County.
City funding of health and human services nonprofits peaked in 2010 at $453,610. The City Council chipped away at that funding level in its 2011 and 2012 budgets, reducing funding to $429,680 and $380,210, respectively, until dropping the hammer so to speak at its Nov. 13 work session that it plans to phase out such grants altogether. Next year’s funding levels will see about a 25 percent cut, taking the total grants under $300,000.
In defense of the recommendation, City Manager Steve Barwick invoked the need to protect the bureaucracy, stating that the city’s general fund revenues are too “volatile” to maintain current grant funding levels, and that such grants are “ ... simply not sustainable for the city. If we stay at this level we are looking at another round of layoffs and cutbacks [for the city].”
Mayor Mick Ireland invited county officials and nonprofit representatives to consider the current funding scheme’s “disparate” burden to city taxpayers. According to Ireland, Aspen taxpayers each, on average, contribute $45 more per year ($137 to $92) than county taxpayers, about the price of lunch for two at any Aspen restaurant except McDonalds.
“Disparate”? Let’s investigate.
As a matter of tax policy, Ireland’s statement is inaccurate. All county residents, whether they live in Aspen, Snowmass, Basalt or unincorporated Pitkin County, pay the same property tax rate to the county’s voter-approved “Healthy Community Fund.” Ireland seeks to add the City Council’s general fund appropriations to this funding equation and assign it as a burden to Aspen taxpayers and call it “disparate.” But this appropriation has nothing to do with the voters, it is the result of a council funding decision. Assigning a council funding decision to Aspen’s voters and then calling it double taxation is simply an excuse to avoid responsibility for reducing funding to Aspen’s most at-risk community members. There is nothing “disparate” about elected officials identifying a priority and choosing to use discretionary funds to address a need.
As a matter of budget policy, city funding of health and human services nonprofits should be considered in the context of all city of Aspen governmental services. Only through such an analysis is the magnitude of the funding disparity so clearly and accurately disclosed.
Let’s first consider available funding for Aspen’s governmental priorities.
If a government’s true priorities can be determined by the amount of money kept on hand that is legally dedicated to meet the needs of certain constituents, then Aspen’s annual financial report speaks volumes. At the end of 2011, $56.2 million of Aspen’s $69.3 million in governmental fund balance was from funding sources dedicated by law to the following purposes:
Description: 2011 Year End Fund Balance
1. The arts (the Wheeler real estate transfer tax): $26.9 million
2. Affordable housing real estate transfer tax:$12.7 million
3. Transportation and tourism sales and use tax:$5.7 million
4. Environmental improvements (stormwater property tax):$4.0 million
5. Childcare services (Kids First sales tax):$4.0 million
6. Parks and open space (sales tax):$2.9 million
2011 total legally dedicated government fund balances:$56.2 million
Noble causes to be sure, but how much fund balance has the city set aside to serve its most at-risk citizens? Zero dollars. On the basis of dedicated funding, the city has decided that pretty much anything and everything is a higher priority it’s most at-risk constituents.
Back to the question of “volatility.” During the 24 months encompassing January 2010 to December 2011, Aspen’s governmental fund balance grew $18.4 million. In other words, on average Aspen took in an astonishing $768,607 more than it spent on governmental services and capital improvements every month for 24 months. In the private sector they call that profit.
Yes the city is rat-holing much of this money for future capital projects, primarily housing. And of course the largest rat-holed chunk, about $27 million worth as of December 2011, belongs to the Wheeler, but that is beside the point. What is not beside the point is the order of magnitude of the city’s other priorities in comparison to its most at-risk citizens.
And the general fund? That source of discretionary funding whose “volatility” allegedly threatens to lead to layoffs and cutbacks if $380,000 in grants to social services nonprofits are not eliminated? It grew 46 percent, or $3.4 million, from $7.4 million to $10.8 million in two years.
“Volatile” revenues Mr. Barwick? Ballistic seems a more descriptive adjective. In light of such growth your ominous warning about layoffs and cutbacks seems disingenuous to say the least.
On the expense side, the city’s $380,000 in 2011 health and human services nonprofit grants constituted a mere 1 percent of governmental operating expenditures, by far the city’s smallest category of expense, amounting to little more than statistical rounding error against 2011’s $37.5 million-plus governmental operating expenditures for all services, which break down as follows:
1. General government ($11.8 million, 33.1 percent)
2. Culture and recreation ($11.7 million, 32.7 percent)
3. Public safety ($4.1 million, 11.5 percent)
4. Debt service on outstanding bonds ($3.4 million, 9.4 percent)
5. Public Works ($2.9 million, 8.1 percent)
6. Childcare (1.8 million, 4.8 percent)
7. Affordable housing ($1.4 million, 3.9 percent)
What can we conclude from this information?
Aspen’s current funding level for social services nonprofits is infinitesimal in comparison to its overall spending. In my view, for many reasons it should be a small amount, but it should be a top priority. The city has an obligation to maintain an active funding relationship and open lines of communication with those individuals and organizations providing Aspen’s “safety net.” This is local government budgeting 101.
Second, positing elimination of funding for Aspen’s most at risk citizens as necessary to avoid staff layoffs is, in any context, intellectually dishonest when it is the budget’s single smallest expense category.
When city leaders make such assertions while their fund balance grows by over $760,000 a month, it becomes a disgrace. Ghandi said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” The nation of Aspen doesn’t seek to mistreat its most at risk, just callously outsource their care to others so that it can focus on the arts, the environment, housing, open space and the like. At least that’s the story the numbers tell.
At this time of Thanksgiving, disgrace seems the appropriate description of this cynically calculated policy choice. A municipal election is coming in May. The time for change is long past.
For the employees and board members of the health and human services nonprofits serving our valley, on this Thanksgiving 2012, I offer you the words of the late American poet Odell Shepard:
For what I give, not what I take,
For battle, not for victory,
My prayer of thanks I make”
Thank you for everything you do.
Email Paul Pmenter98388@gmail.com.