Child-care cuts hit home

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— One young couple and several child-care providers listened as Routt County commissioners decided to lower the eligibility threshold for child-care assistance on Monday.

Shanna Toft-Johnson, 24, and Shane Johnson, 29, have two young sons. Toft-Johnson is a pharmacy technician and Johnson is a maintenance worker in Steamboat Springs.

Together, they make just less than 225 percent of the state's poverty level, which is $41,400 for a family of four.

With the commissioners' decision to decrease the eligibility threshold from 225 to 200 percent of poverty level by Oct. 1, and then again to 185 percent by Jan. 1, 2004, the Johnsons will no longer receive assistance for day care.

"There is no way that we can keep our children in day care and make ends meet -- as it is, we can barely do it," Toft-Johnson said.

The Johnsons are not alone. Fourteen families with 20 children will be affected by the first sets of cuts. Commissioners listened to the concerns, but said they had to make the cuts to help balance an estimated deficit of more than $110,000 in the county's child-care assistance program, which now helps 54 families.

"I don't think any of us sitting at this table is thrilled about what we have to do," Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said.

"This is a community issue that is not going to go away," she added later. "We just need to continue to educate the community about the importance of having young working families in the community."

Commissioners decided to take the action recommended by Routt County Human Services Director Bob White, which was to lower the threshold in two stages. That gives families who will lose their funding some time to decide what to do, and gives the department time to determine whether those cuts are enough.

The threshold might need to be cut more, from 185 to 175 percent. In any case, the county will be dipping into social services reserves for about $50,000.

Commissioners said that they did not want to make the cuts, but that there was no other option.

"Where do we go from here?" Commissioner Dan Ellison said. "I think we still want to be in the forefront responding to the problem but I don't think we can."

Funding families at the current threshold of 225 percent of poverty level results in the county distributing about $430,000 in assistance annually.

Most of the county's funding for child-care assistance comes through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, which operates on a July 1-to-June 30 fiscal year, so the final numbers for this year's allocations aren't in yet. But White said he expects to receive no more than $317,000 from the state this year.

Commissioner Doug Monger said that this issue spoke to a larger problem: the need for affordable wages in Routt County.

"We need to be finding affordable wages," Monger said. "If we keep enabling this situation to go on by putting a false floor on the thing, it's not going to solve itself."

After the meeting, the Johnsons described their options, which were limited. "One of us would have to quit," Toft-Johnson said.

Moving to another town would be tough at this point, she said.

"We can't pay first, last and a deposit anywhere," she said, which would likely be required if they tried to find a new home to rent. "We can't afford to stay or leave."

Within the next month, Toft-Johnson said her family would have to figure out what to do. She also said she hoped her words at made an impact. "I didn't come here to say, 'Oh, poor us.' I came here to say people need to know this isn't going to work," she said. "I don't know how we're going to make it work."

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