Stretching services |

Stretching services

Local social service agencies, schools, and law enforcement offices feel the bite of a depleted state budget

Samantha Johnston

The implications of state budget cuts reverberate through mental health centers, law enforcement agencies and the local school district.

As state legislators in Denver continue to haggle over how to control a budget that has sunk into the red, area social service agencies are

fearful that further cutbacks could have devastating effects in Moffat County.

The Social Services Department of Moffat County, which receives county, state and federal funding, already has frozen some of its programs and completely eliminated a program that helps at-risk children find permanent homes.

Social Services

Marie J. Peer, director of Moffat County Social Services, said state funding critical to obtaining federal dollars has taken a downward turn and more cutbacks are expected.

This money acts as matching funds for federal grants.

“If you don’t have the state funds, you are not going to get the federal funds,” Peer said.

Some of the programs already feeling the bite include the home care allowance program, which pays people to help the elderly with chores and errands so those older residents aren’t forced to live in an assisted-living center.

Moffat County has not been able to approve new clients for its home care allowance program since October.

Statewide, the cut to this program has been $2.3 million.

Another program that has been weakened because of a lack of funds is the child welfare program that, statewide, lost four percent of its annual budget — about $11.2 million — at the beginning of the fiscal year, which began July 1.

“More cuts are expected but we’re not sure how much,” Peer said. “Cuts already have been introduced in the Legislature, although none have been passed so far.”

Peer said there has been a 13 percent cut in core services, which was about a $33,000 hit to Moffat County.

These services include intensive family therapy, which is provided jointly through Craig Mental Health Center, parenting services, and day treatment, which helps children who are having difficulty in school because of emotional problems. Social Services refers these children to Craig Mental Health Center and councilors talk to the child, teachers and the child’s family in order to develop “teacher-pleasing behaviors.”

Day treatment took the biggest cut of those core services and this has raised concerns beyond Social Services.

Barb Seed, program director for Craig Mental Health Center, said the cutback means the program, which is serving eight or nine children at this time, can’t take on any more students for the rest of the year.

“We get the kids to modify their behavior so they can stay in the classroom,” Seed said.

Peer said the day treatment budget of $90,000 lost $28,000.

“This is going to impact the children, the schools, the community and law enforcement,” Peer said.

“I am fearful that children might fall through the cracks,” Seed said. “And it’s a domino effect. They grow into disruptive adolescents and then they become adults who are not functioning as they should.”

Moffat County Social Services is not the only area assistance agency that has been feeling

the pinch.

Pat Tessmer, executive director of Advocates said they are seeing a record number of clients while funding dwindles.

Tara Jenrich, executive director of Moffat County Partners, which is a mentoring program for at-risk youth, has had to cut a position in her office, although she says services have not yet been impacted.

Kent Nielson, senior director for Grand Futures Prevention Coalition, a substance abuse prevention coalition that serves Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties, said another challenge is that many organizations, including his, are competing for a shrinking pool of dollars.

The dominos start falling

Gary Gurney of Yampa Valley Psychotherapists said his facility already is beginning to see

indirect impacts from the state’s budget cuts.

Yampa Valley Psychotherapists, which has offices in Craig, Steamboat Springs and Hayden and has been operating for 18 years, is seeing this impact throughout the area, Gurney said.

“We see people from Social Services because Social Services are not offering the programs that they were before,” Gurney said. “Social Services had programs where they paid Craig Mental Health for services but those funds are drying up.”

Gurney said many people who are seeking help are doing so because they have run into trouble with the law in one form or another. But funds that once paid for services for offenders are running out.

Even those who are seeking help who are not in the legal system are having a hard time finding assistance because not only are state funds disappearing, insurance is either non-existent or too expensive.

“We’re using a sliding-scale fee system as best we can,” Gurney said. “We don’t get grants. How people

pay for services is going to

become an issue more and more. We try to do what we can but it’s going to get worse.”

Seed said for the first time in 30 years, her office has had to turn people away based on monetary reasons.

“We are denying clients who do not have funds,” Seed said. “We are trying to maintain clinical quality while staying within a budget.”

Seed said as funding continues to become hard to come by, people will have to wait longer to receive services, if they receive services at all.

“So, instead of early intervention, we may be seeing them in jail or in the hospital,” Seed said.

Cutting at both ends

While those who work in the fields of social services say those who cannot get assistance could end up in jail, the chief probation officer for the 14th Judicial District, which covers Routt, Moffat, and Rio Blanco counties, said budget cuts continue to hamper his department’s effectiveness.

Chris Arellano said probation departments are looking at mandatory unpaid furloughs that could have an impact on the supervision of offenders and the completion of investigative reports that the courts require.

“The furlough is an attempt to save jobs and there’s a hiring freeze,” Arellano said.

Probation office employees will have to take off one day a month for the next five months in order to ease the budget crunch.

Because of cutbacks and these forced days off without pay, there has been no training for officers, no promotions, no pay increases and the result has been low morale throughout the state, Arellano said.

With further cuts expected, it will impact the entire population — about 1,000 offenders — that the department supervises, including juveniles, adults and DUI offenders.

Arellano said there is a standard regarding caseloads and how many officers can work. The standard is 163 hours of “workload units” for supervising clients per month but officers of the 14th Judicial District are working 180 hours in monitoring offenders. This total, however, does not include investigative work, which puts the total at more than 200 hours a month.

“So they’re working harder, there are no incentives, it’s not good for staff (morale),” Arellano said.

One option the department is looking at is “farming out” the cases of low-risk offenders to private companies that would supervise these offenders.

“The intention is to supervise and keep the higher-risk offenders, such as sex offenders, which we are mandated to do by law,” Arellano said.

The challenge in Northwest Colorado, however, is that many of the companies are located on the Front Range and it may not be cost effective for them to take on cases here.

Arellano said that while these agencies that are feeling the budget bite come from a wide spectrum of services provided, representatives need to realize that they must work together no matter where they may be located in the Yampa Valley.

“We are going to have to buckle down as a community and work together,” Arellano said.

A guessing game

While the future of many of Craig’s most important agencies is unclear, one thing is certain — law enforcement will be working double time to pick up the pieces.

“The bottom line is that our officers’ workloads will increase, because we will have more kids on the streets instead of in treatment programs,” said Walt Vanatta, Craig chief of police.

It’s hard to figure out exactly what the impact on officers will be because, at this point, it’s a numbers guessing game.

“I can’t say whether there will be 10 more people on the street or less or more,” he said. “But we are anticipating that, as a result of (state budget) impacts on other agencies, people who would have been more supervised, will be less supervised. Generally, if you are supposed to be supervised, that is a result of not behaving properly. When you are not supervised and don’t behave properly, we have to deal with you,” he said.

The relationship between other agencies and their ability to provide support to their clients also will directly impact the caseload for city officers.

“If someone is on probation and is no longer supervised on a regular basis, we’ll have to start doing the criminal paperwork when they re-offend,” Vanatta said.

The flip side of the coin is that there are state statutes that require Moffat County’s Crisis Evaluation Team to screen a juvenile before he or she can be released. With the CET team facing the possibility of cutting all four part-time positions, director Kelly Goodwin may be responsible for handling everything.

“If Kelly is a one-person office, I don’t know how she can possibly keep up with that,” Vanatta said.

And dealing with offenders on probation will likely be more difficult for law enforcement in the face of mandated time off for local probation officers.

“Right now, layoffs are eminent and, as it is, we are 1.5 positions short and I am making all probation officers take an additional 5 unpaid days off,” Arellano said.

Time off for probation officers means more casework in fewer days for them, but can also mean serious crunches for law enforcement.

“With probation officers now taking eight days off a year, that is eight days that we can’t get in touch with them where we could before,” Vanatta said.

And, according to Vanatta, this means officers may or may not get the information they need to detain someone, which may mean even more time officers will spend obtaining arrest warrants — all of this increases paperwork and office time and decreases the amount of time officers spend on the street.

“We could potentially be putting people back on the streets that shouldn’t be and then we have to deal with that person plus whatever they do,” Vanatta said. “And, in some cases, there will be a lot more victims,” he said.

Programs and police

All of this adds up to less community policing.

“This will primarily affect our ability to do proactive community police work,” Vanatta said. “We will have less time for community programs, running radar for traffic patrol and conducting surveillance of homes and businesses. We will be simply reacting and time that is slim now will be even more tied up.”

In some cases, all of the additional casework for officers will mean that an officer simply will not be available to be on the street because he or she is needed in the office doing paperwork or “babysitting.”

Whether funding cuts will impact the longevity of many programs is a valid concern, especially from a long-term perspective.

“One option will be to take step backward,” Vanatta said. “It is realistic to think that we’ll see a lot of really good programs go away because there is no funding to keep them going. We’ve been through some really good times and, because of that, we’ve been able to add programs. For us, we’re just getting used to dealing with these programs and, when they disappear, we’re back at square one.”

Chief Vanatta expects to see legislative work in progress to repeal some statutes that mandate proactive treatment for people because there simply aren’t the trained professionals to perform those services.

While the Craig Police Department expects to see increasing effects from the budget cuts, the county might be poised for as little impact as possible.

“Anytime that other departments have to cut back, it ends up being that juveniles will become a part of the system and we will end up doing transports to Grand Junction or other places with youth facilities,” said Jerry Hoberg, Moffat County undersheriff.

The feeling seems to be the same between law enforcement departments — if there are no services then youth will either end up in supervised detention facility or be turned loose on the streets.

“The bottom line is that if a crime happens in the county involving a youth, we’re going to be involved,” Hoberg said. “But what it boils down to is when transporting is necessary, we do it all.”

Fortunately for the sheriff’s department, there are many resources within the community, including reserve officers and Citizen’s Assistants, who are trained professionals who can transport or supervise detainees, who can be pooled to be sure that deputies are not taken off of the streets.

But all that comes at a price.

“In the long run, we will see the financial implications that come with increased transportation and supervision,” he said. “I don’t foresee a huge increase in prisoners or transports but if it happens, we can handle it,” he said.

Perhaps the one event that might increase workload for the department is if programs discontinue altogether. When people can no longer afford mental health care or services through Social Services, Hoberg anticipates an increase in problems.

Despite county budget cuts for the sheriff’s department, Hoberg said he feels confident that his department is in much better shape than many others.

“I really felt sorry for a lot of those people (at an interagency meeting) because they are much worse off,” he said. “We’ll see the trickle down eventually, but it will take drastic events to make a serious impact on us.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Craig and Moffat County make the Craig Press’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.