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Bracing for the Fallout

County budget cuts dissected



Two years ago, El Paso County had the highest infant-mortality rate among Colorado's Front Range counties. More than 8 in 1,000 babies died before reaching the age of 1 a rate higher than those of countries such as Cuba, Malaysia or Slovakia.

Last year, the rate dropped to 5.9 in 1,000 -- more on par with the overall rate for Colorado.

While no one is sure what caused the high rate or the recent drop, experts agree that maternal-health and prenatal care programs are crucial in the effort to battle infant deaths. If they're right, the El Paso County Board of Commissioners may have delivered a blow to that effort locally.

Stranded in Fountain

As a result of the commissioners' recent decision to slash services in order to pay for a jail expansion, the county Health Department will likely be forced to stop providing family planning, pregnancy testing and referral services at its Fountain Valley Health Clinic in Fountain. The clinic serves an estimated 200 people each month, many of whom have low incomes and limited access to private health care.

The clinic, which also provides child immunizations and flu shots, is set to lose funding after next year as a result of the commissioners' action, says Rosemary Bakes-Martin, the county's public-health administrator.

Though the same services are available at the main Health Department complex in Colorado Springs, "It's kind of difficult for some of the Fountain Valley residents to come up to the Springs," said Kandi Buckland, chief of the Health Department's maternal and child health services.

Poor health

Indeed, the likely closing of the clinic is just one example of many local services that will be lost.

At the Health Department, whose budget over the next four years is being slashed by $1.1 million, Bakes-Martin also plans to scale down a testing program for Hepatitis C.

Additionally, funding will disappear for drug and alcohol counseling for teen-agers and pregnant women, though Bakes-Martin hopes to find alternative providers who can pick up the programs.

Chronic-disease programs targeting arthritis and diabetes will also be on the chopping block in the next few years, unless the Health Department can find outside grant money to sustain them. The same may be the case for a program to promote car safety seats for children.

And as if that weren't enough, some Fountain Valley residents may face an additional obstacle as they seek to travel to the Springs for the services that will no longer be offered at the Fountain Valley Clinic: The bus service between Fountain and Colorado Springs may be eliminated as another result of the commissioners' cuts.

The City of Colorado Springs is considering cutting as many as seven bus routes that run outside city limits, serving Fort Carson, Pikes Peak Community College, Rustic Hills, Widefield, Peterson Air Force Base, South Academy Boulevard and Fountain.

El Paso County previously subsidized those routes to the tune of $525,000 per year, but commissioners have eliminated the subsidy to help pay for the jail.

No new parks

Taking the biggest hit in proportional terms, however, is the county Parks Department, which is losing $750,000 per year, or about one-quarter of its total budget.

Parks Director Barbara Nugent now wonders how the department will afford such things as controlling mosquito larvae in ponds within county parks, which may be breeding grounds for West Nile Virus.

"It certainly means we're not going to be able to build additional parks," Nugent said of the budget cuts.

The department had long planned to purchase Section 16, a 640-acre foothills property currently owned by the state Land Board, to preserve it as open space. That is now out of the question, Nugent says.

Dan Cleveland, who heads the county's Park Advisory Board, predicted the Parks Department won't be able to do any further development at the recently acquired Homestead Ranch and Paint Mines regional parks, in the eastern part of the county. Paint Mines is currently closed to the public and may stay that way, he said.

"We may just have to put a fence up and lock the gates," Cleveland said.

-- Terje Langeland

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