It's been a couple years since Cripple Creek gamblers spotted three little kids huddled in the back of a car on a frigid winter night.
The children, ranging from about 3 to 8 years old, had been left there by their gambling-addicted parents, and not for the first time.
"These kids were often left alone when their parents gambled," recalls Trudy Strewler, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of the Pikes Peak Region (CASA).
Keeping kids like these safe was supposed to have been part of the Legislature's decision in the late 1990s to send some revenue from casinos back to gambling-impacted communities, in the form of grants. But now, just months after voters approved casinos staying open 24/7, and gambling limits jumping to $100, Strewler and other nonprofit and government leaders are bracing for their share of the money from gaming to disappear.
"It would almost decimate our program in Teller County," Strewler says.
CASA now receives about $104,000 each year to train and support volunteers who advocate in court for about 50 Teller County children. That money — a small slice of approximately $3 million for Teller and El Paso counties combined — is on the chopping block in Gov. Bill Ritter's latest $320 million cost-saving plan.
Dan May, district attorney for El Paso and Teller counties, is also looking at losing $530,000 worth of gaming impact money, which funds nine staff positions in his office to help with the extra caseload related to Cripple Creek gambling. And yet he says the load could become even bigger if CASA loses its Teller County funding: "When CASA is gone, we are going to see an increase in child abuse."
The same could happen with domestic violence cases if TESSA, which provides support services for survivors in both counties, loses a $36,000 gaming impact grant.
Bigger-ticket items are at risk, too. Teller County Commissioner Jim Ignatius fears that the county jail, which gets 44 percent of its clientele from gambling-related infractions of drunken driving, stealing and the like, will lose more than $600,000, or half its operating budget. With the loss of additional gaming impact grants to fund four deputies and various road projects, Teller County government could be out $1.6 million, in a budget of $26 million.
"We're going to lay people off and decrease service levels," Ignatius says, adding that local and regional nonprofits almost surely won't be able to pick up the slack.
The changes aren't set in stone, since state legislators still need to approve them in January. But county governments have to balance their budgets by mid-December. And nonprofits have their own budgets to worry about.
Aspen Mine Center, which operates a food pantry in Cripple Creek and provides space for a range of social services, including a TESSA office, stands to miss out on close to $200,000, about a third of its budget. Ted Borden, the center's coordinator, says casino workers often need food assistance and other help during winter months when casino work slows.
"Basically," Borden says, "we are going to try to find funds to keep the doors open any way we can."
A few entities looking at game-changing funding cuts:
Teller County Jail $624,000
District Attorney's office $530,000
CASA of Pikes Peak Region $104,000