Property tax on horizon for program

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Horizons Specialized Services Inc. is seeking a property tax to help fund its operations in Routt County.

Horizons serves residents with mental retardation.

A combination of a growing population with more needs, an aging population of care givers, decreasing funding from the state and increasing costs of providing care has left Horizons strapped for funding, Horizons Finance Director Amy Bowers said.

Horizons, which serves those with developmental disabilities in five counties in Northwest Colorado, has a waiting list of 55 clients. Routt County alone has a list of 22 names with a waiting period of seven to 15 years before services can be given.

Bowers pointed to a family in which a young woman was placed on a waiting list at the age of 14. Six and a half years later, she still was far from the top of the list, forcing her parents to live apart.

Mother and daughter went to another state where the daughter could receive services, and the father remained in Routt County where he has a job.

"That is one of the tragic stories we have seen," Bowers said. "If we had the funding to offer her services, she would have stayed in the community."

For more than a year, Horizons has examined the possibility of asking voters to approve a one-mill property tax levy to help support its operations. In January, the agency held a retreat with Routt County commissioners and made a formal presentation to the county commissioners three weeks ago.

Under state law, county commissioners have to approve the ballot question before it goes before voters in November. County Commissioner Doug Monger said no decision has been made.

"The three commissioners will debate and consider issues with the ballot (question), including the accountability to the citizens and accountability to the board, how much money to ask, what fits in with human services countywide and how it fits in with the overall needs of the county," Monger said.

Moffat County commissioners have approved putting the mill levy question before voters there.

"We are hopeful the decision in Moffat County makes Routt County commissioners more comfortable in choosing this for the ballot," said Christine Quinn Burtt, who is with a public relations firm in Denver that is working with Horizons on the ballot initiative.

Right now, Horizons is not asking for a property tax in the other three counties, but it has plans to in the future, Bowers said.

One mill levied on property in Routt County would raise close to $700,000. Bowers said all the money raised in Routt County would go toward Routt County programs and residents.

The average cost to a Routt County household, which is calculated as someone who owns a home assessed at $350,000, would be about $28 a year. Someone who owns a home assessed at $200,000 would pay $15.92 a year, and someone who owns a home assessed at $400,000 would pay $31.84 a year.

Monger said that before deciding to put the mill levy on the ballot, county commissioners want to discuss how Horizons will ensure money raised in Routt County stays in Routt County.

In the 1960s, the Legislature created a statute allowing a one-mill levy to fund organizations that provide services for those with mental retardation. Until the Taxpayers Bill of Rights was approved in 1992, county commissioners alone could have approved the mill levy. With TABOR in place, the issue must go to a vote of the people.

In the past five years, Douglas, Arapahoe, Denver, Larimer, Jefferson, Mesa and Boulder counties have approved a mill levies to help support agencies working with mental retardation.

Burtt said mill levies are the result of a high demand for services and little money to provide them.

She pointed to fast-growing Douglas and Arapahoe counties, the first to ask for property taxes in 2001. As population increases, so do the number of people with mental retardation, she said. About 2 percent of the population has some developmental disability.

As the number of people needing services increases, Burtt said, the network of caregivers helping support them grows older. Elderly parents and relatives can no longer physically take care of their adult children.

Colorado agencies providing services to those with mental retardation also are seeing a drop in state funding, in part because of the budget shortfall TABOR has created, Burtt said. As the state funds less, the cost of providing care increases with rises in the price of transportation, housing, utilities, salaries and health insurance.

The state gives Horizons about $2.8 million a year, which is 85 percent of the organization's total budget of $3.3 million. Horizons makes up the difference through fund raising, grant writing and contributions from local governments, Bowers said.

"We are really desperate to seek out another way to get some funding," she said.

Part of the hope is for the mill levy to allow more people into the program. But, Bowers said even with the extra $700,000, Horizons would not be able to reach all the people on the waiting lists for its adult services.

In 1963, Colorado passed legislation that created a multiple-county system of nonprofit agencies to provide services for those with mental retardation and their families. The intent was to allow more control and flexibility at the local level and to keep families together. The state has only three institutions to take care of people with mental retardation.

"This (property tax) can really help lots of families stay together, which is the most cost efficient and effective way of helping people with mental retardation," Burtt said.

Horizons has two main programs, one for adults and another for children as old as 3.

The Early Intervention Pro?--gram works with children diagnosed with development disabilities in the hopes of lessening the disability during the most critical period of their development. Horizons does not have a waiting list for its Early Intervention Program.

However, the adult program does.

The agency helps adults with job training and life skills such as budgeting, cooking and interacting in social settings.

Horizons also offers assisted-living facilities where in-home care is provided for adults with mental retardation, and some clients are provided with around-the-clock supervision.

For those clients who still live with their families, one of the services Horizons provides is respite care, giving families an hour or two of free time during the week.

"The difference that it makes in the lives of people is so significant," Burtt said.

For the Turners, life on the waiting list can be hard.

When Jeffery Turner turned 14, his parents signed him up for Horizons' services. Six and a half years later, he is 14th on the list, said his stepmom, Cindy Turner.

The Turners have hired someone to work with Jeffery five days a week for an hour every day, helping with budgeting and other life skills. Jeffery, who works as a bagger at Safeway, also gets some assistance from the state as part of a job-training program.

The rest of the time, it is Cindy and her husband, Michael, supervising Jeffery, who has his own apartment.

He needs someone to remind him to take his medication, help him get ready in the morning and watch him as he shops for groceries, Cindy said.

"It creates a greater stress on us because of the opportunities for him to make poor choices," Cindy said. "He requires a lot of support and a lot of supervision."

Jeffery, who has some degree of autism, can be socially inappropriate at times, which can get him into trouble, Cindy said. The family would be more comfortable if he were in a group home.

"That is the greater advantage than the economics," Cindy said. "When he is there, there is supervision, he is safe, he has companionship and hopefully, when he is part of the Horizons program, he would have recreation and social activities."

It is hard for Jeffery as he watches former schoolmates and peers participate in Horizons activities and programs not yet available to him.

"He feels left out," Cindy said, "and that hurts his feelings."

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