County trims childcare subsidy

Income guidelines change; 11 families will lose assistance

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— Eleven local families will lose $192 per month in childcare benefits beginning in January.

County commissioners acted this month to lower the income threshold at which local families are eligible for its childcare subsidy. The 11 families who will no longer qualify for assistance have a total of 12 children in daycare or preschool.

They are among 61 families with 93 young children currently receiving benefits.

The county has used a mix of federal and state funds to provide eligible families with a monthly benefit of $192 per child to allay the cost of child care. Faced with a budget shortfall next year, the commissioners found it necessary to lower the income threshold that determined eligibility for the program.

"We were looking at a shortfall of $92,000," County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said. "It was strictly based on the dollars available."

Routt County had previously obtained a waiver from the state allowing it to provide childcare benefits to households earning 300 percent of federal income guidelines. That concession was made in acknowledgment of the high cost of living here, and Routt is the only county in the state at the 300 percent level.

The 300 percent threshold allowed families of four to make up to $50,000 and still get help with child care. Now, families of four will be able to make a little under $41,000 and receive the benefits. A family of three would be able to make $33,800 and still qualify.

For next year, Routt County has $352,933 available for the childcare program. At the 300-percent income guideline the program costs are projected to $445,270.

By reducing the income threshold to 225 percent of federal guidelines, the commissioners were able to trim projected expenditures to $347,000.

Even after the income threshold was reduced, Routt County's limit is among the highest in the state. Thirteen counties have thresholds between 186 percent and 225 percent and 39 counties have thresholds between 170 and 185 percent. Among those 39 is Moffat County along with resort counties like Grand, Eagle, Pitkin and Summit.

County Human Services Director Bob White said the need to scale back the program is a result of an increasing caseload and a gradual escalation of preschool tuition fees in the last two years.

"It was a tough one for the commissioners," White said. "They want to take good care of Routt County families, but they're also fiscally responsible."

White said Routt County's subsidy of childcare bills has its roots in a national movement to shift welfare from entitlement programs to programs designed to transition people away from public assistance to self-sufficiency. When Colorado gave a great deal of flexibility to county governments, Routt County opted to place great emphasis on early childhood education, White said.

This month's reduction of the income threshold is also an indirect result of the election of 2000, White said. That year, twin ballot questions, one in the city of Steamboat Springs and one in the county, failed to win approval of the voters. The property tax measures would have raised $1 million annually and would have effectively extended the equivalent of public education to infants and toddlers, White said.

The property tax measures would have also allowed the county to sustain childcare benefits for families at 300 percent of federal income guidelines.

Since November 2000, childcare providers have increased their rates to gradually bring them closer to the actual cost of providing a high level of service and making enough profit to sustain their operations, White said. The county has made a decision not to ask the providers to subsidize families of modest incomes, he added.

"The reality is the state and federal dollars are no longer there to sustain (the 300 percent threshold)."

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