Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Pagosa Springs Includes ECE Funding In New Budget

(Pagosa Daily Post.com / Editorial ) - The approval of the 2018 budget for the Town of Pagosa Springs occurred last night without much public comment, or Council comment. But the Council had already spent many hours in budget work sessions and were presumably familiar with the reasons for the various line items.

The discussion about the Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District (PSSGID) was slightly more interesting. The Town Council also serves as the PSSGID Board of Directors, and the current Board inherited one of the more curious, and seemingly expensive, sanitation districts in Colorado. (More about that in Part Four.)

Prior to approving the 2018 budget, however, Mayor Don Volger wanted to thank Tate Hinger, the young man who has been representing Pagosa Springs High School as a non-voting member of the Council for the past several months. The Mayor had come up with the idea of inviting a high school student to observe — and occasionally comment upon — the Town’s decision-making processes, and young Mr. Hinger had been filling that position.

The Mayor read a proclamation and we had a photo op.

In front, from left, Pagosa Springs Mayor Don Volger and PSHS volunteer Tate Hinger. In back, Nicole DeMarco, Mat deGraaf, David Schanzenbaker, John Egan, and Clint Alley.

We then moved on to the business at hand: the 2018 budget.

The approval of the Town budget legally requires a public hearing, and one of the two comments offered by the public came from Jan Santopietro, who has been heading up the ad hoc Early Care and Education Work Group. As Ms. Santopietro noted, that ad hoc group has been studying the need for additional children’s daycare “slots” in Pagosa Springs. When the group released their first report, back in April of this year, the volunteers included Mary Jo Coulehan, Matt Dodson, Teddy Finney, Katharine Frisbee, Garry Lassman, Dee McPeek, David Smith, Michael Whiting and Linda Reed. Ms. Santopietro is a paid coordinator, funded by local government and foundation grants.

One of the group’s primary objectives was to quantify the number of daycare slots available in the community; they came up with “193 effective full-time slots, which are most often filled.” The group’s second objective was to:

“…determine the number of children ages birth up to five years who would be enrolled in early care or education if it was available and affordable. The goal was achieved by distributing a two-question survey to parents in five focus groups in Archuleta County. The survey results indicated that additional slots were needed for all age groups and the number of currently available slots must be increased by approximately 150%.”

The group’s final objective was to make recommendations to the Town Council and the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners. The recommendations made in the April report, however, were — in my humble opinion — rather vague. And rather expensive, in the sense that they would rely on increased or re-prioritized local tax revenues. (I suggested a slightly different way to view the daycare problem in an editorial series which you can read here.)

Ms. Santopietro’s comments at last night’s Town Council meeting did not concern the group’s recommendations, however. She was concerned — as were the rest of the Early Care Work Group’s members, presumably — that the Town Council had added a new $100,000 line item to their budget to support the development of more daycare slots — but had combined that amount, in a possible confusing way, with the annual funding support usually provided to one of the more highly rates (but expensive) daycare solutions in the community: the Seeds of Learning Early Care and Education Center.

To understand what happened to ‘Early Care’ last night, we need to look at two sections of the Town Budget. The first section shows the money contributed by the Town Council to local non-profit organizations. By all accounts, defining this part of the Town budget is the most challenging task for Council members, because they are asked to judge the worthiness of some local service organizations.

As we see in the bottom section, the Council determined, this year, to limit municipal contributions to a maximum of $10,000 per organization. We also see, in the upper section, that Seeds of Learning had received a $5,000 grant from the Town back in 2015.

In 2016, the Council changed their approach to the funding of Early Care, by making it a line item in the “Economic Development” section of the budget. As we see:

In other words, the provision of daycare was no longer a simple charitable service, but rather a component of economic vitality. And rather than give Seeds of Learning its own line item, the Council determined in 2016 that all daycare providers ought to be eligible to apply for support. Last year, the amount of support for the “economic development” side of daycare was set at $50,000. I believe (don’t quote me) that the money was ultimately split between Seeds of Learning and the Early Care and Education Work Group.

Earlier this year, County Commissioner Michael Whiting began promoting the idea that our two local governments ought to earmark $300,000 each in their 2018 budgets, to fund the development of three pressing community needs: early childhood education, affordable housing and broadband internet. (These “Three Priorities” have been the subject of numerous joint Town-County meetings over the past year.) The Town Council decided, during its budget deliberations, to fund affordable housing and broadband at $50,000 each — as we can see in the chart above — and to fund “Early Childhood Care” at $100,000.

When I first heard about the Town Council’s decision to donate $100,000 towards daycare, I had assumed that this would be in addition to the $50,000 contributed last year, meaning $150,000 total dedicated to daycare. But as we see above, the Town merely added an additional $50,000 to the amount contributed last year.

Ms. Santopietro, in her comments last night, gave me the impression that her volunteer task force had made the same assumption that I’d made — that the amount coming from the Town would total $150,000 rather than $100,000. She stated that mixing the new funding with the old funding, in the same line item, was going to pose problems for her volunteer group, in terms of determining how the total amount ought to be spent.

As the only other member of the public to testify last night, I reminded the Council and Ms. Santopietro that Commissioner Whiting hopes to create a new citizen advisory panel to make recommendations for the use of the new “Three Priorities” funding, since the Town and County will in essence be creating a shared fund — but each board must ultimately approve any spending plan independently of one another.

We can assume that the Early Care and Education Work Group itself does not need to get involved in determining how money will be dispersed to worthy applicants. The group needs only make their own application to the “Three Priorities” advisory panel — someday, when that panel eventually gets appointed.

Assuming the panel gets appointed. Someday.