Boulder County hears proposals for $63M in federal relief money

May 4—Providing direct cash assistance to low-income families, investing in affordable housing projects and creating a mental health community response team are among the proposed Boulder County projects to address disparities exposed by the pandemic.

Three working groups, tasked with developing ideas to spend the just over $63 million in American Rescue Plan Act relief money allocated to Boulder County, presented their final recommendations at a virtual meeting Tuesday.

The Boulder County commissioners plan to use the recommendations to decide how to distribute the money. The three topic areas they want to address are economic challenges, housing affordability and mental health and social resilience. Those areas were identified through community feedback, with a focus on prioritizing the needs of those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, according to county staff members.

The economic challenges working group is proposing creating a grant program to support small business and nonprofit organizations, providing direct cash assistance to low-income families and creating an early childhood community village in Longmont.

The group is requesting $7.5 million for competitive business and nonprofit grants, with a goal of awarding the money in summer 2023. The plan is to give 15 entities that directly support businesses $100,000 each, 400 small businesses $10,000 each and 40 nonprofits $50,000 each.

The grants would target businesses in higher poverty areas, with requirements that include a commitment to provide high quality jobs that pay a living wage with benefits. Uses for the grant money could include increasing employee pay and hiring underrepresented community members.

For the direct cash assistance, the group wants to follow the federal child care tax credit model, giving $300 a month per child to low-income families with children ages 0 to 3, for up to two years. Families also would receive support with navigation and referrals to child care options and other services.

Families would not be limited in how they could spend the money, allowing them to pay for child care, food, basic needs or to support staying home to care for their children. The families would be identified through community organizations.

The total requested is $6 million. Most of the money would be used for direct assistance to 725 families with children ages 3 or younger. About $200,000 would pay the salary for two years for a person to plan, administer and evaluate the program. Another $500,000 would be given to community partners to assist with distribution.

"The program will have meaningful, immediate impacts for families and children," said Julie Van Domelen, executive director of the Emergency Family Assistance Association. "Investments made in young children have a lasting, lifelong effect."

For the early childhood village concept, the proposal is to provide seed money to support the development of an "early childhood community village" location in southeast Longmont, as well as to strengthen the early childhood workforce by supporting "family, friend and neighbor" child care training.

The requested $1.5 million in seed money would be used to kick start additional investments in the village project, which has an estimated startup cost of $13 million. The idea is to provide child care, family resources and provide training in a single location.

The housing affordability group is proposing $7.5 million in investments in affordable housing projects that already are in the pipeline, along with $2.2 million for a regional housing partnership and $5 million to support mobile home park residents — including a fund to help residents buy the parks from their outside owners.

Potential affordable housing projects include Boulder County Housing Authority's Willoughby Corner project in Lafayette, Boulder Housing Partners' Rally Sport project in downtown Boulder, Longmont's assisted living project to support low-income seniors, and renovation work at properties serving low-income residents in mountain communities.

"The idea here is to move quickly and get these projects over the finish line," said Laura Sheinbaum, Boulder Housing Partners' real estate development director.

The mental health group wants the county to create a behavioral health mobile response team, which would cost about $3 million over three years. The goal is to help residents in crisis without the need for law enforcement involvement.

The first year would be a pilot, with an estimated cost of $750,000. The estimated cost to run the full program in future years is $1 million a year. The plan includes hiring eight responders and a clinical supervisor, serving all of Boulder County. Teams would be dispatched through a new state crisis line.

The group's other recommendations are to spend $8.5 million to support more equitable access to mental health services, as well as $3 million to create an online community hub to connect people with mental health resources.

For the equitable access project, the goal is to create a more comprehensive behavioral health safety net model in partnership with community organizations. Another component is to provide direct financial aid to individuals struggling to afford mental health services through a voucher program.

Costs would include $3 million over three years for community based grants, $2 million for a community resource center, $3 million for mental health vouchers, $500,000 for school-based services and $500,000 for community trainings around mental health.

The county commissioners were supportive of the proposals overall, but asked the working groups to address several questions in future meetings. Those included whether there's a plan to address the shortage of mental health providers, whether the regional housing partnership would duplicate existing work and how to market the behavioral health mobile response team.

Commissioner Claire Levy said they will need to decide how much money to spend on hiring staff members to start and manage new programs versus spending that money directly in the community.

"These are the difficult questions we're going to have to grapple with," she said.