State law hampers aid for low-income people, county officials say

The director of the Mesa County Human Services Department says a bill passed by the Legislature in 2008 is “foolish.”

The act required counties to spend down their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families reserve funds to 70 percent by this past July and to 30 percent by July 2012.

Mesa County spent $3 million in the first round of draw-down spending. Of that amount, $1.16 million was distributed to Bridges Out of Poverty, a group of community low-income assistance programs. The remaining funds were spent for programs such as Grand Valley Transit,  food pantries and the Workforce Center’s employment and training programs, according to Len Stewart, executive director of the Mesa County Department of Human Services.

“I don’t believe we would have funded those if we did not have to,” County Commissioner Janet

Rowland said. “We never wanted to spend down that (reserve) money.”

Each year the county receives around $5 million in temporary assistance funds, Stewart said. And each year, Rowland said, the county spends it, mainly on core social services programs such as child care, keeping about 10 percent in reserve as a “rainy day fund.”

When Mesa County was ordered by the state to spend down its reserve fund, it was at $5.7 million, according to Mesa County Human Services.

With the economy in recession, the county is having to cut, rather than expand, funding to nonprofit organizations that serve low-income residents, Stewart said. After the first disbursement of temporary assistance reserve funds, the county is cutting the number of nonprofit organizations it will give grants to from 29 to 15, Human Services said.

“That first spend-down was, now, in retrospect, foolish,” Stewart said. “The money we are going to need for another two years of a bad economy has already been spent.”

The spend-down will not affect basic cash assistance for needy families, but it will limit the county’s ability to fund nonprofit organizations that assist low-
income residents, Stewart said.

In December 2007, a Colorado Department of Human Services budget hearing addressed the issue of counties building up huge reserves of temporary assistance funds.

According to the state’s record of the meeting, in 2005 the temporary assistance fund reserve account balance for all counties in the state was $35.4 million. In 2007, the balance increased to $79.8 million. Counties, on average, were spending about 75 percent of their allocations, according to the report.

Rowland said Mesa County was not one of the counties “hoarding” its reserves. She said there were a few large Front Range counties guilty of keeping hefty reserves, which caught the eye of state legislators.

Stewart said the Legislature needs to go back to the drawing board and allow counties to retain adequate reserves to serve their neediest residents.

“The damage has been done to counties’ ability to have prudent reserves to go into a recession,” he said.

Stewart said the money allocated by the county during the recent spend-down was not wasted.

The County Commission invited nonprofit organizations to make a pitch for the funds. Human Services reviewed the applications and made recommendations to the commission. The commissioners then decided which programs got money and how much money. The allotments w
ere made through the Bridges Out of Poverty initiative.


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