Rushed EPC Commissioners Award Food Bank $1.5 Million of Taxpayer Funds

Last week, it was rush, rush, rush at the El Paso County (EPC) Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting. There was no time to waste! The board members hurriedly voted on and awarded $1.5 million to the local food bank, Care and Share. 

Are we against feeding hungry people? Certainly not! Private donations to food banks are very appropriate. It’s not the government’s job to donate on our behalf, though. 

Some Background

What Are the Differences Between Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF)? 

According to Vernon Stewart, El Paso County Executive Director of Communications: 

“SNAP formerly known as food stamps, SNAP provides food-purchase assistance to low- and no-income households. A household can include one person living alone or related or unrelated cohabitating individuals who routinely purchase and prepare meals together. Although it’s a federal program, state agencies administer it through their local offices. SNAP is designated for food purchases. 

TANF benefits help low-income families with dependent children achieve self-sufficiency. States receive funding for the program through block grants issued by the federal government, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. TANF benefits can be used on a wider variety of household essentials. Rent and mortgage payments can be paid for with TANF funds, as can household appliances, laundry services and personal hygiene products, internet and phone service and medical bills and supplies not covered by Medicaid.”

The BOCC Meeting

Stacy Kwitek, El Paso County Executive Director of Human Services appeared before Commissioners on April 25th, 2023. Watch the meeting here. The relevant section starts at 2 hours, 1 minute. Kwitek’s department had an excess of $1.5 million in county and federal funds from the $21.1 million TANF 2023 EPC budget. Around $1.3 million of the money were federal dollars, and around $200,000 were county dollars. As a reminder, it’s all taxpayer money, whichever of your pockets it came out of.

Unlike SNAP money, TANF funds can be used for programs. Participants must meet the criteria of earning less than $75,000 a year and have at least one child in the household. Kwitek reported that her department had $1.5 million as “use or lose” funds. She said the deadline to spend the money is June 30, 2023. Kwitek had a solution to the problem. She told the Commissioners that she wanted to distribute the money directly to Care and Share. Care and Share would then order food and divvy it out among 100 local food banks. All of the participating food banks must stick to the TANF requirements —households earning less than $75,000 a year and at least 1 child in the household. She said passing that money to Care and Share would mean the county would not have to do the distribution work and would get more food for their dollars if ordering it through Care and Share.  

Think about that: taxpayers are now assisting households that make less than $75,000 a year. The census bureau reported that the median 2022 Colorado Springs household income was $71,957. That means more than half of households in our city qualify for the TANF income requirements.   

In recent months, SNAP food amounts have been reduced by about $90 per person, per month —back to their pre-COVID levels. This was a decision made by the Federal Government, and local Congressman Doug Lamborn voted in favor of returning the SNAP amounts back to the pre-pandemic levels. 

Commissioner Carrie Geitner expressed concern about using the funds for food. She was concerned about it circumventing the Federal Government’s decision to reduce SNAP benefits. She blamed insane amounts of government spending for inflation, and pointed out the county has already given $1 million to Care and Share over the past 2 years. Additionally, Geitner had concerns that welfare programs lead to more government dependence. She wanted to look for other areas to spend the money, or to sell the funds to other counties. 

Selling the TANF benefits to other counties would mean the money would come back to the EPC Human Services Department for next year’s budget. That would free up funds to be used elsewhere in the county. This idea makes sense to us.

Commissioner Cami Bremer said the county is incredibly conservative, and they make sure they don’t overspend. She refused to delay the vote due to the time constraints.

Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez asked why Care and Share was chosen instead of another organization. He supported waiting a week or two, and seconded a motion by Geitner to delay the vote. He said a decision for passing the money to Care and Share was picking winners and losers. 

Commissioner Stan Vanderwerf said if the funds are available, the county should take advantage of it. He voiced concerns about public debt, but said it was an issue for congress. He said passing the money to Care and Share was the proper way to get the funds out before the June 30th deadline.  

We notice at this point, that we are still in early May! 

Commissioner Holly Williams said that Care and Share has the resources to distribute food to many needy families, and she would support giving them the funds. She said a delay would jeopardize getting the food in time to distribute.

Geitner went on to request the other commissioners delay the vote for one week to fully vet the matter of the excess funds. Vanderwerf, Williams, and Bremer voted against a one-week continuance and in favor of giving the taxpayer money to Care and Share. Gonzalez and Geitner were in favor of the one-week vote delay, and against awarding $1.5 million to Care and Share that day.

Our Take

The 3 commissioners who voted in favor of the $1.5 million “gift” can’t have it both ways. They can’t say they are fiscal conservatives, and then wash their hands of responsible spending because the dollars are from the federal government —a different pile of money. 

Spending needs to be reined in. The Commissioners should have allowed the sale of the TANF funds to another county and used the excess funds to support the EPC Department of Human Services next year. That would have freed up Department of Human Services funds to be used elsewhere in the county budget. It was an option, but they would not slow down for one week to consider it. 

Another thing to ponder is that the annual budget for a department head (Kwitek) had $1.5 million excess revenue which became a last-minute “spending emergency.” That’s irresponsible. That department clearly has too much money in the budget, and it should be reduced next year. We’ll be watching for that reduction.  

Reach out to your El Paso County Commissioners and politely let them know what you think of the award to Care and Share.

Cami Bremer  CamiBremer@elpasoco.com

Carrie Geitner  CarrieGeitner@elpasoco.com

Longinos Gonzalez  LonginosGonzalezJr@elpasoco.com

Stan Vanderwerf  stanvanderwerf@elpasoco.com

Holly Williams   HollyWilliams@elpasoco.com

We asked all of the Commissioners for any further comments. We heard back from Gonzalez and Geitner directly, however, EPC Executive Director, Vernon Stewart, answered questions on behalf of Vanderwerf, Bremer, and Williams.  

Commissioner Gonzalez:

“I did not communicate with Congressman Lamborn on the issue but was supportive of letting the expanded SNAP benefits expire and return to normal/pre-pandemic levels.  As to the vote itself, Care & Share is a great local nonprofit but I voted no for a couple of reasons.  The first, I feel that had identified a way to utilize our available matching funds for higher priority County projects by selling the unused Federal SNAP funds to other CO counties willing to use them and take them on.  I believe it made more sense to utilize those funds for our county priorities such as roads maintenance or public safety, rather than on a nonprofit.  Second, IF we were to move forward with utilizing the underspent funds elsewhere (with a nonprofit), we were never given a list of other nonprofits or agencies that were also eligible to utilize the funds.  As such, I supported the one-week delay to be able to review such options.  Also, Care & Share has already been a recipient of significant funding from CARES Act and ARPA Funds over the past couple years, and it might appear the county is continually choosing one nonprofit over others (i.e. picking winners and losers).  And as I mentioned during the board meeting, I was disappointed that my idea of how to better utilize the matching funds was not more fully reviewed and discussed by the full board.”

Commissioner Geitner:

“I am supportive of cutting out of control federal spending, including returning the SNAP benefits to previous levels. I have communicated generally, at times, with staff from Lamborn’s office about that support. 

I think I probably said enough in my meeting comments, but let me know if you have any questions.”

Vernon Stewart on behalf of Commissioners Bremer, Williams, and Vanderwerf:

Did any of you communicate with Doug Lamborn or Lamborn’s office, expressing support to the return of SNAP benefits back to pre-pandemic levels?  

“Commissioner Geitner did have a brief conversation with Congressman Lamborn’s office regarding this topic. We are not aware of any other conversations. His office did not reach out to us, nor did we reach out to him. But we DO support the return of SNAP benefits back to pre-pandemic levels, and Commissioners have discussed this in public meetings. Link here – https://vimeo.com/821721534/fb5ea37db1?share=copy

Were you supportive of returning the SNAP benefits to pre-pandemic levels?  

“Yes. 

This was a Department of Human Services report on the changes to SNAP on the January 24, agenda. Between 2019 and 2021, SNAP grew $54 billion, and the federal debt is $31 trillion. In 2022, the deficit was $1.3 trillion in a single year. This is not sustainable. We have introduced a Resolution to the National Association of Counties (NACO) asking the federal government to reduce spending. We are hoping to make it a national NACO position this summer at the NACO National Convention. The federal government must act now to reduce spending across many programs, including SNAP, or we risk a national default, a terrible outcome with dire consequences. The SNAP increase was designed to be a temporary COVID relief. There is a difficult balance between residents that need these programs and the economic reality. There are many other resources available that we are hopeful can be utilized more.“

Also, any additional comments about how you voted and why you weren’t agreeable to wait a week to explore how best to spend the TANF money? 

“This item (Resolution to approve and enter into a Subrecipient Agreement with Care and Share Food Bank Inc. in the amount of $1,500,000.00) was voted on at the April 25, 2023, meeting. Waiting an extra week would not have substantially changed the considerations for our vote. There is a time window here driven by federal requirementsIf the funds are available, we should take advantage of having them benefit our local citizens, even if we oppose federal overspending.  Returning these funds would not have prevented them from being spent elsewhere. As such, the broader issue of massive federal overspending would not have been resolved by our vote. Families must balance their checkbook. Colorado has a statute that requires public agencies to balance their checkbook. Congress should do so as well. We see the recently passed “Limit, Save, Grow Act” as a step in the right direction that will balance reductions in federal spending fairly across communities nationwide.  

Care and Share is a long-standing private entity that has done much to resolve community problems privately and a week’s delay would have added risk to ordering food and getting it delivered within the federal timelines.”

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