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State budget plan restores nearly $1M El Paso County child welfare services stood to lose

March 22, 2017 Updated: March 22, 2017 at 9:15 pm
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A rainbow hangs in the evening sky above downtown Colorado Springs Saturday, July 6, 2013. Light afternoon showers this week have given relief to lawns all over the Pikes Peak region. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

A state budgeting decision could keep an El Paso County child welfare program from losing nearly $1 million.

On March 14, the Joint Budget Committee voted to use money from the state's general fund to make up for a cut that would have taken more than $5 million from child welfare programs in Colorado's 64 counties for the 2017-18 fiscal year. The news was a victory for the county's human services department, which has the highest number of child abuse and neglect referrals in the state, said Julie Krow, the agency's executive director.

The plan to cut child welfare funding, announced by the state late last year, was originally intended to provide extra money for "indirect costs" - including administrative expenses, such as the costs of rent and salaries of high-ranking officials - accrued by the state's Department of Human Services. In the past, the state has waited until the end of the year to pay for those costs using unspent funds for child welfare programs.

The proposed $5 million cut, combined with a 20 percent match in local funding, would have added up to a loss of more than $7 million for children and families across the state. In El Paso County, which receives 13 percent of the state's child welfare allocations, the cut and local funding match would have amounted to $921,432, Krow said.

"That's a really big cut. We wouldn't have been able to absorb it without some loss to the county and, more importantly, the kids in the county," Krow said. "To see a successful resolution is a great thing, and everyone is really grateful that it worked out in our favor."

The funding decision has yet to be finalized. The proposed budget, which will be introduced in the state Senate next week, must pass through both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly and be approved by a conference committee before it arrives on Gov. John Hickenlooper's desk. The budget is expected to be signed by the governor in mid-April, said Robin Smart, a senior legislative analyst for the Joint Budget Committee.

El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller, a former state representative, said the committee's decision is a good indication that funding for the county's child welfare program will remain untouched.

"I really feel our chances of having those dollars be in the final budget are great," Waller said. "We've maintained all along that it's much more important for those dollars to go to children than for those dollars to go to fund state government. That's why this has been such a labor for us."

At the Board of County Commissioner's regular meeting on Tuesday, Krow shared the news and thanked commissioners, several of whom attended meetings and wrote letters to support maintaining child welfare funding.

"We just couldn't have done it without you," she told them. "I feel so lucky to work with all of you because you've been so supportive of kids and families."

Two other budgeting tweaks could make a positive difference for Krow's department.

On Feb. 28, the Joint Budget Committee approved funding that would be used to hire up to 67 new caseworkers and supervisors at county human service departments statewide. In El Paso County, the extra money could mean six to eight new caseworkers, Krow said.

Gov. Hickenlooper also signed off on a supplemental budget request on March 1 that will add $2,471,482 in funding to expand the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, which helps families in need pay for child care. El Paso County will receive $372,132 of the sum, Krow said.

The potential cuts to El Paso County's budget would have been enough to pay the salaries and benefits of more than a dozen caseworkers.

A 2014 workload study commissioned by the state's Legislative Audit Committee showed that the state's child welfare system needed 574 more full-time caseworkers and 122 additional supervisor positions to handle caseloads.

The strain is especially felt by El Paso County's division of Children, Youth and Family Services, which has seen steady increases in abuse and neglect assessments and referrals in recent years.

Referrals rose from 13,747 in 2014 to 15,665 in 2016, according to the division.

Krow attributed the uptick to the county's growing population and the creation of a statewide child abuse and neglect hotline.

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Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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