Aspen City Council on Tuesday agreed to maintain its current level of funding for health and human services through 2014, but after that it’s unclear how the municipal government will play a role in what many people consider a crucial community amenity.
Council agreed in a work session to give $380,210 toward health and human services next year, which will be administered through Pitkin County and doled out to a network of nonprofits known as “the POD.”
And in the next few months, officials from the city, county, and the towns of Snowmass Village and Basalt, will enter into discussions on how to find the long-term funding solution to a growing need.
City administrators have said that the municipal government is more than paying its fair share toward the effort — more than most other governments — and if that funding level continues, it will deplete the general fund reserves. If that happens, the city may struggle to meet other needs in the future.
But that didn’t persuade some council members who said more, not less, should be given to health and human services, regardless of whether the city’s contribution is inequitable compared to other local governments.
Council members listened to assistant city manager Barry Crook talk about double taxation when it comes to the city funding a core function of Pitkin County, and how Aspen taxpayers pay more per capita than most communities for health and human services. Aspen residents fund health and human services through Pitkin County property taxes.
“This is a very generous community,” Crook told the council, noting that per capita, the average Aspen resident pays over $700 a year in taxes for health and human services, childcare, recreation, arts, culture and nonprofit funding.
Council members Ann Mullins and Dwayne Romero both criticized a memo written by Crook and city finance manager Don Taylor on the issue of future funding for such services, saying that it was biased and attempted to skew their perspectives.
Romero, who advocated for finding a way to increase the city’s funding of human services by re-prioritizing financial requests, said the memo felt like it was in combat mode. Romero added that he found its tone and tenor defensive.
“This is one of my key priorities,” he said of health and human services, adding that the city government spends millions upon millions on “hardware” — physical structures — which pales in comparison to how much is spent on “software,” or human beings.
“That is the statistic that is most alarming and present in my view,” Romero continued. “There is more and more evidence to invest in the software.”
Mullins said she didn’t find the memo “extremely helpful” and she questioned the content. She said she wants the city to put a higher value on health and human services, and she advocated for finding a way to make the city’s financial contribution more than a one-year commitment.
Councilman Art Daily said he was comfortable with the current level of funding, and is not concerned about what other communities provide toward human services in the context of comparing equity. He noted that what the city now gives is a not a large percentage of the budget.
Councilman Adam Frisch, who has sat in subcommittee meetings with county officials in what has become a contentious issue between the two governments, said inferences that the city has misplaced its priorities, or that it’s generosity is lacking, are wrong.
“Aspen has gotten beat up unfairly,” he said.
He supported committing to the funding level through 2014 and said he wants to find a way to secure funding long-term. Frisch agreed with others at the table that there should be some metrics established to determine if the money is being spent effectively by the nonprofits and is doing some good for those it’s aimed at helping.
“I want to make sure duplication of services is thought about,” Frisch said. “I do think we need to look after the less fortunate.”
Mayor Steve Skadron, who made the argument that city taxpayers are being burdened with the costs of a core function of the county, said a future work session will be set up to allow comments from the public on the issue. But he did support, along with the four other council members, funding the current levels through next year.
He also has sat in the subcommittee meetings, and said comments that allegedly have been made by county officials that the city isn’t paying enough are uncalled for.
“Any characterization that the city isn’t doing its fair share is completely wrong,” he said.
The city has discussed phasing out the grants in recent years, creating an ongoing dispute with Pitkin County officials and drawing concern from local nonprofits.
The county uses its tax dollars to pay for $2 million in state-mandated human services, and supplements those programs with the separate property tax-supported Healthy Community Fund, which collects $1.9 million annually.
Crook and Taylor argued in the memo that the city funding represents an unfair double-taxation of city residents, who already are paying the Healthy Community Fund’s property tax.
They say that it’s not equitable to Aspen residents to pay the Pitkin County property tax that supports health and human services and be asked to pay again in city taxes.
Romero said community members are accustomed to paying multiple taxes for the same service or amenity, like open space and affordable housing.
“This community has long gotten past the notion of double taxation,” he said.