Report: Weld County Bright Futures program to require $8.5 million annual contribution from county | MyWindsorNow.com

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Report: Weld County Bright Futures program to require $8.5 million annual contribution from county

By the numbers

1,384 — Number of students who took advantage of Weld County Bright Futures grants, available to all Weld County high school graduates.

$8.5 million — Proposed Weld County investment, from the county’s general fund, toward Bright Futures grant program.

$750,000 — Of the $8.5 million, county officials estimate the county will pay $750,000 toward a 50 percent match/property tax rebate for property owners who donate to the program, meaning…

$1.5 million — The amount county leaders anticipate, and hope for in donations to the program per year.

$10 million — The estimated full cost of the Bright Futures program, per year, once the program is in its fourth year.

Who qualifies for the grants?

Those eligible for the grants include all students who graduate from high school starting in 2016, who are legally residing in Weld County, and have been residents of Weld County at least two of the last four years; one of those years being the year of graduation from high school.

These people are also eligible:

» A Weld County resident who graduates from a high school outside of Weld County

» An individual who earns a GED after May 2016 who has resided in Weld County four years before the application date.

» Any honorably discharged veteran who graduated from a Weld County high school since 2006 and currently lives in Weld County.

Once you get the money, you must:

» Make regular progress toward a degree or certification

» Maintain a 2.0 GPA

» Complete a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester (part-time students may be eligible for prorated benefits)

There is no family income gap, and really no restrictions except the fact that grant recipients must not be undocumented immigrants.

How to donate

Go to http://www.weldcountybrightfutures.com and click on the large green button with a light bulb logo along the left side of the website. From there, you’ll be asked to submit your information. Only property owners in Weld County will be eligible for the Weld County Property Tax Credit. That tax credit will be 50 percent of your donation. So, if you donate $1,000, you will receive a $500 property tax credit. Combined with state and federal income tax deductions that come along with charitable giving, a $1,000 donation will end up costing $173.70, according to information provided by Weld County.

Weld County will have to commit up to $8.5 million per year to keep its Bright Futures grant program alive, according to projections from county finance officials.

The recommendation, which marks a departure from the original plan to fund the majority of the program through donations, received a nod of approval from the Board of Weld County Commissioners during a Monday work session. Big changes, namely committing millions from the county's general fund to the program, would officially come when the board approves the county's budget in December, following a public comment period in October.

"Even with an improved marketing and fundraising program, the reality is to make the Bright Futures program financially sustainable long term the Weld County commissioners are going to have to commit County General Fund dollars each year," according to county documents.

The program promises nearly all Weld high school graduates $3,000 per year — up to a maximum of $12,000 for four years — to attend a higher education institution. The same promise is made to Weld residents who have a GED, as well as honorably discharged veterans. All they have to do is fill out a form.

The Bright Futures program started in the fall of 2015, funding higher education for its first class of Weld County high school graduates in fall 2016.

County officials set aside $15 million that would go toward property tax rebates for property owners who donated to the program.

But donations in the first two years have yielded just $1.3 million for a program that offers up to $3,000 per student, per year, with many students needing less for community college and other programs. With more than 1,300 students taking advantage of the program this past fall to the tune of $1.1 million, fundraising already barely kept pace. Additionally, the money is promised for four years, meaning the costs are set to rise exponentially each of the next three years.

Even with Colorado Opportunity Scholarship money, and money from oil and gas leases reaching nearly $3 million in the past two years, there just isn't enough funding. Don Warden, finance director for the county, said the county will need $10 million per year to fund the program.

"We kind of went pie in the sky (at first)," board Chairwoman Julie Cozad said.

The new direction calls for $1.5 million in donations and an $8.5 million commitment from the county's general fund to sustain the program, with $750,000 of the county's commitment going toward property tax rebates at a 50 percent match of any property owners' donations.

It also calls for a shift in responsibility. Although Weld will still pay the nearly $150,000 in administrative costs, plus the cost of hiring a marketing director, fundraising efforts will be housed under Upstate Economic Development, according to the preliminary plan discussed Monday. That organization would have a Bright Futures Advisory Board, which would answer to Upstate. It would also have a marketing director, who would answer to the advisory board as well as the director of Upstate.

"We learned a while ago, we rolled it out and did a pretty good job," commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said. "But we're not marketing specialists."

Rich Werner, director of Upstate, said the conversations still are preliminary, as the Upstate Board of Directors won't vote on the agreement until the end of the month. Werner said Upstate, which focuses on economic development, has been supportive of the Bright Futures program since it began.

Commissioner Sean Conway said the economic development aspect is important.

"We have a responsibility as a county government to ensure we have a strong workforce development program," Conway said.

Even with the promised property tax rebates, Weld officials' proposal — to eventually fund a potentially $10 million per year program through donations alone — was bold.

The United Way of Weld County, for example, raises $3 million to $4 million each year, something Warden and commissioners touched on during Monday's meeting.

"We're going to have to get a marketer extraordinaire," Conway said, citing United Way's fundraising ability.

Commissioner Mike Freeman remains optimistic about the program in the face of drastic changes. Freeman has previously said the county would meet its fundraising goals. And on Monday, Freeman said he thought the $10 million per year number represented a "worst-case scenario," citing the relatively low percentage of students who finish school, among other things.

It's true that slightly more than 50 percent of Weld County high school graduates go on to attend a higher education institution, and about 60 percent of those students will complete a degree.

About 1,400 students took advantage of the program this year at a cost of about $3 million. Next year, costs will double. And costs will increase every year until the fourth year of the program, when four groups of students are all receiving Bright Futures money.

Cozad said county officials may need to make bigger changes in the future, including limiting the time frame during which students can take advantage of the money (it's 10 years now), or making a two-year commitment to students instead of four.

In the future, it will come down to shared decision-making, and many decisions will be out of commissioners' hands altogether, save for their ability to withhold funding.

Speaking to that end, Kirkmeyer, who along with other commissioners spent much time and effort persuading the Colorado Legislature to adopt new rules that allowed counties to develop such a program, said the county will have to let go.

"Our baby has grown up, and is going off to college," Kirkmeyer said.

Tyler Silvy covers city and county government for The Greeley Tribune. Reach him at tsilvy@greeleytribune.com. Connect with him at Facebook.com/TylerSilvy or @TylerSilvy on Twitter.