Pitkin County is sending more than $1.8 million in checks to Healthy Community Fund grant recipients this month, the most in the property tax-funded program’s 11-year history.
Among the recipients this year are two organizations fighting gas drilling on federal land, within the county’s borders, in the Thompson Divide.
The county’s citizen-based grant review committee, comprised of five local residents, had rejected funding requests from the Wilderness Workshop and the Thompson Divide Coalition, due to concerns about the political natures of the organizations and their environmental activism. Both appealed the committee’s recommendations to the Pitkin County commissioners, which approved funding for specific projects within the nonprofits.
Commissioners decided to uphold the appeals in a Nov. 13 meeting.
The commissioners granted $9,000 to the Wilderness Workshop to collect baseline air and water quality data in Pitkin County for “an early-warning system of adverse impacts to the environment and population of Pitkin County and the wider region.”
They gave $5,000 to the Thompson Divide Coalition, specifically earmarked to hire a consultant who will conduct an economic analysis report, studying the impact of drilling in the Thompson Divide on recreation, agriculture and ranching industries.
“Funding their legal defense fund would not be in the scope of the Healthy Community Fund,” said county deputy director of health and human services Mitzi Ledingham. “But the commissioners felt that funding that report was a good idea and a benefit for all the citizens of Pitkin County.”
A third appeal also was upheld by the commissioners, raising the grant for the Silt-based Schneegas Wildlife Foundation from $500 to $3,000. Schneegas rehabilitates injured and orphaned bears.
This round of grants are the first to utilize increased property taxes for the fund, which county voters approved in 2011 to meet rising needs following the recession.
“The agencies are continuing to experience increase in service demand and that has been true for several years now,” said Ledingham.
The increased demand for social services since the economic collapse of 2008 has been met with state and federal funding cuts for social services, Ledingham said. So the increased funds being granted by the county are largely just keeping the current level of services going. The city of Aspen, meanwhile, has begun cutting its social services grants, which totaled $380,210 last year, and may phase them out completely over the next two years.
A joint city-county task force has been meeting to address the proposed city cuts. From the county, its members are commissioners George Newman and Rachel Richards, county manager Jon Peacock and health and human services director Nan Sundeen. The city’s representatives are councilmen Steve Skadron and Adam Frisch, city manager Steve Barwick and assistant city manager Barry Crook. It also includes nonprofit representatives from the Buddy Program, Hospice of the Valley and Community Health Services.
The individual increases in grants were moderate. The Aspen Homeless Shelter, for instance, received $20,000 last year and asked for $30,000 this year, but received $22,500. The Buddy Program received $25,000 last year, asked for $50,000 this year, and was awarded $30,000. Mountain Valley Developmental Services received $65,000 last year, asked for $75,000 this year, and received $70,000.
Total requests for funding reached nearly $9 million this year.
The majority of the 69 Healthy Community Fund grants awarded this year were for social services organizations. About $1.2 million of the total grants go to health and human services entities like Community Health Services ($320,000) and Pitkin County Senior Services ($378,195).
The voter-approved ballot question raising the fund’s tax specified nine types of programs that would be eligible for grants, including child protective services, care for seniors, at-risk youth programs and mental health counseling. It also included, “programs that protect the quality of our natural resources,” which, in the commissioners’ interpretation, opened the door to funding the Thompson Divide Coalition and Wilderness Workshop.