Candidates debate health and human services funding

by Carolyn Sackariason, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Two of four in attendance offer solutions

The four mayoral candidates who showed up on Tuesday to a forum on the city of Aspen’s role in funding health and human services all agreed more money should be allocated but only two of them gave specifics as to how.

Mayoral candidate Torre suggested that the mill levy be increased on a Pitkin County property tax that is dedicated to funding health and human services and nonprofits in the valley.

Candidate Maurice Emmer said there are ways to find savings within City Hall and then reallocate that money to nonprofits and health and human services. He did not say where he would cut.

Their opponents, Derek Johnson and Steve Skadron, said they agreed that nonprofits and health and human services play vital roles in the community, and that the need to fund them is increasing, but they didn’t provide concrete solutions on how to make that happen.

Members of the nonprofit network, collectively known as the POD, held the first mayoral forum for the May 7 election. Candidates Adam Frisch and L.J. Erspamer didn’t attend Tuesday’s forum held at the Schultz Health and Human Services Building.

Aspen City Council last year reduced its 2013 grants to health and human services providers by $90,000. Council allocated $390,000 in 2012 and this year, the city’s contribution out of the general fund was cut to $300,000. As has been discussed during the budgeting process for the last four years, the city is planning phase out all general fund dollars in the future.

The city has spent more than $350,000 on health and human service grants each year since 2007, with the most being doled out in 2010 at $450,000 to meet increasing needs of valley residents in the depth of the recession.

The county administers grants to dozens of organizations through the Healthy Community Fund (HCF), which comes from a property tax voters renewed in 2011. The tax, which voters raised when it was renewed, now brings in roughly $1.9 million a year.

City officials have reasoned that the current funding mechanism is flawed because it double taxes residents who live in the city and pay both city sales and county property taxes. And, the current system is unreliable because of volatility in the city’s general fund.

Torre said he has been trying to find the right funding source to make the city’s partnership with the county’s health and human services providers stronger.

“With all respect, we’ve seen in just this past month several tragedies in our community and we need to be addressing that as one issue,” he said of four suicides since January.

He said he argued for a higher mill levy when the HCF was presented before voters.

“Recently when we went to the voters I thought that it was [set] at too low of a mill,” he told the group of nonprofit and county representatives. “I thought it should be slightly higher ... and it would really feed the need of $300,000 per year with a very small burden on the taxpayer.

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Four of the six candidates currently running for mayor of Aspen took part in a forum on Tuesday morning at the Pitkin County health and human services building. Seated from left to right: Maurice Emmer, Torre, Derek Johnson and Steve Skadron.

“That way, the dollars that are in the general fund will be available for emerging needs,” he added. “I still think the city will have a great role to play in funding as well. I don’t know if it needs to be at the level of $400,000.”

Emmer suggested that there are places where money can be saved in City Hall by “streamlining” functions of the municipal government and creating “efficiencies.” Savings in discretionary expenditures could then be possibly re-allocated to health and human services and nonprofits.

“We should look at everything in the discretionary budget and see where things can be more efficient and I’m sure there is $300,000 in there,” he said. “I strongly oppose more taxes.”

He added that with a total budget of $106 million, the city should be able to find more money to contribute to the county for its Healthy Community Fund.

“I think it’s inexplicable that a city like Aspen could only spare, and after a lot of wrangling, .35 of 1 percent of its enormous budget to contribute to the very valuable health and human services functions that support and serve the citizens of this city,” he said. “I think we need to make it a much higher priority and on a more sustained basis.”

Skadron said there are many competing interests in the city’s discretionary funding, and all of the decisions on spending are difficult because there are needs at every level of the community.

“We need to find a predictable, sustainable and long-term funding source and we need a fair and equitable contribution among the entities in the county,” he said. “Across the board the city does more than any other city in the valley and perhaps in Colorado in its contribution to health and human services.”

He said the discussion should focus on the broader issues of who is funding the obligation, noting that it is a core function of the county and the services provided extend all the way to Parachute.

He said city residents shouldn’t have to pay twice and he has a fiduciary responsibility to his constituents that their money is being spent wisely.

Johnson said he agrees with the double taxation argument, and noted that the city upped its contribution in 2009 by $100,000. He said at the direction of council, city and county officials are working together currently to find a long-term solution.

“I think there is a history of having a willingness to help when asked,” he said. “We need to figure out a stable funding source.”

Helen Klanderud, a staunch supporter of health and human services, as well as mental health counseling for decades in the community and in the state, attended Tuesday’s meeting. She applauded the city and county for leading the way in funding health and human services, especially since it’s rare or non-existent elsewhere in Colorado.

“That is looked at as absolutely amazing,” she said of the community’s commitment. “It’s important to me to see that there is a high value put on health and human services in Aspen and in Pitkin County. You are admired throughout the state for what is already going on here.

“What you are doing is admirable and needs to be continued,” she told the group and mayoral candidates. “Continue being the leader.”