Local officials aren't conceding in battle over child welfare dollars

February 4, 2017 Updated: February 4, 2017 at 3:45 pm

The battle between Colorado's 64 counties and the Colorado Department of Human Services over millions of dollars for child welfare programs has some local officials resigned to being short-changed while others are hopeful the state will come to its senses.

Julie Krow, El Paso County's director of Human Services, said the situation that could take almost $1 million out of her budget is "not looking very hopeful."

Commissioner Mark Waller and the legislative director for Colorado Counties Inc., though, are holding out hope that the state will find another source for the more than $5 million it needs to pay for such things as senior-level salaries, rent and more.

"I'm not ready to give up at all," said Waller, who serves on the Child Welfare Allocation Committee. "My hope is that they will understand that the right thing to do is to make sure those dollars get to our most vulnerable citizens. We should be getting that money straight to the kids."

In late 2016, the state announced it planned to take more than $5 million out of county Department of Human Services budgets, a departure from the usual practice of waiting until the end of the year and using unspent funds from child welfare allocations to pay for "indirect costs."

A fact sheet published by CCI states that the $5 million combined with 20 percent local match funding would mean a loss of more than $7 million that would benefit kids and their families. According to CCI, that amount would lead to a loss of 102 full-time social workers.

"There's too much potential harm to the people we serve," CCI's Gini Pingenot said. "You just can't take the money off the top."

Pingenot said CCI unanimously voted at its Jan. 27 meeting to oppose the state's proposed child welfare allocation withholding. The organization, whose purpose is to assist county commissioners and help state counties work together, fears that the change in how the state uses child welfare allocation funds would set a precedent that could lead to more and more money being withheld up front.

The tweak to the procedure resulted from a restructuring of the state's Department of Human Services. In early July , the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation moved from the DHS and became part of the Department of Labor and Employment. That meant some money that would typically pay part of the indirect costs was unavailable for 2017.

Initial estimates, when the state first made the announcement about the proposed withholding, showed the state keeping more than $6 million, 19 percent of which would have come out of El Paso County's budget. El Paso receives 13 percent of Colorado's child welfare allocations.

Krow says advocacy by her office, CCI and other counties has helped reduce the amount that the state is threatening to withhold. But she pointed to an ever increasing workload for the El Paso County DHS and the potential loss of money as a "perfect storm."

The El Paso County Child, Youth & Family Services reports that referrals rose from 13,747 in 2014 to more than 15,500 in 2016.

"Child protection is probably the most important services that we perform," Krow said. "When we know there is already a huge need, this just takes us backwards."

If the state stays on course and withholds the more than $5 million from county budgets, El Paso County would lose $921,432, including the 20 percent local match.

Krow said staff for the Colorado General Assembly's Joint Budget Committee is expected to meet with the state DHS Feb. 17 to further discuss the matter. In late February, counties will have a chance to share their feedback and concerns about the potential loss of the child welfare allocations.

Waller, who served as a state House representative from 2009 to 2014, said the Joint Budget Committee will hold hearings before the state revenue forecast is announced at the end of March. In mid-April, the General Assembly will vote on the 2017 budget.

"It's crucially important that we address it now," Waller said. "We've got a long way before these dollars are set in stone. I'm very hopeful."

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