State budget woes haven't trickled down to Jeffco - yet

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By AJ Vicens

Budget cuts hitting Colorado hard aren't expected to have an immediate impact on county operations, but Jeffco officials are concerned that human services programs could be hurt down the road.

State budget officials announced last week that the state would have to close a $384 million budget gap heading into fiscal 2009-10, which begins July 1.

Todd Leopold, Jeffco’s top budget official, said June 23 that most of the state’s budgetary problems haven’t trickled down to the county level. If the budget issues do make their way to Jeffco, it will likely be in cuts to human services programs, Leopold said.

Jeffco’s director of human services, Lynn Johnson, said the state has been good to her department.

“The state has been fantastic,” Johnson said. “This governor is good at understanding the need in human services is skyrocketing, and they have not done a slash and burn on us.”

Jeffco’s Human Services Department gets more than $50 million annually between state and federal funding for programs like child welfare, workforce development, Head Start and justice services.

The demand on those programs has been growing. For instance, between January and May 2008, 18,846 people sought the services of the county’s workforce development office, according to county data. For the same time period in 2009, that figure is up 66 percent to 31,275.

“Respect for vulnerable people has been good,” Johnson said. “But now that they have another $340 million (to cut), I have no clue if they’ll say human services will be safe.”

State Rep. Jim Kerr said he’ll fight to preserve Jeffco’s allocations. He said state allocations for county human services programs could be cut if the state can’t come up with federal matches.

“If we don’t have a buck to give them, they’re not going to match it,” Kerr said. “That’s going to be an area where it could create a dilemma.”

Kerr said he’ll use his position as the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee to make the case that “since (Jeffco) is such a diverse county, so many people depend on services from our Human Services Department.”

Jeffco Commissioner Kathy Hartman said the state has been good about funding counties' human services needs but still worries about cuts in other areas.

"The state has been very good up until now about protecting those programs we have to administer for our most vulnerable citizens," Hartman said, "but one area that makes me nervous is criminal justice."

The state legislature is considering making some crimes misdemeanors that were previously considered felonies, which would shift the burden from the state prison system to county jails. That places added pressure on counties to increase jail funding and also puts pressure on community corrections programs.

"Realistically, if (the state) says what is a felony today is a misdemeanor tomorrow, that will affect our jail population," Hartman said. "Now, if they leave charges as felonies and shorten mandatory prison time, that doesn't impact us as greatly."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.