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With a surplus of funding on hand, Littleton City Council members reopened a debate on the future of Littleton’s only affordable resource center for immigrants seeking citizenship after it was defunded by the previous council in a 5-2 vote in September.  The council settled on a compromise to return the center to a partial funding level that could ultimately lead to full funding. 

During a Jan. 25 meeting, councilmembers were told of an additional $2.4 million the city brought in last year that it did not expect, leading city staff to ask for a list of old and new positions and programs to be funded partially with this amount. Council members led by Mayor Kyle Schlachter and Mayor Pro Tem Gretchen Rydin pushed to see funding for the Littleton Immigration Resources Center (LIRC) added to that list.

“I’ve thought this was a great program for years,” said Schlachter, who was elected mayor in November. “It is a priority for the community … knocking on doors, talking to people, this was probably one of the biggest issues that I heard during the campaign.”

Just one councilmember who voted to keep the center’s funding in September remains on council; Kelly Milliman, representative for Littleton’s District 4, who last year joined former Mayor Pro Tem Scott Melin in voting in favor of funding. 

“I was devastated back in the fall when it was decided not to continue funding,” Milliman said. 

But some current councilmembers who had voted to defund the center doubled down on their decision. 

“I’m kind of shocked that this continues to raise its head. I thought after the last council voted it down this was pretty much an end of discussion topic,” said Patrick Driscoll, who represents Littleton’s District 1. “This thing has been beat to death.”

‘A different time’ for revenue 

The LIRC, which offers low-cost services such as English and civics lessons as well as legal aid to documented immigrants, has for years faced funding uncertainty. While the center, housed in the basement of Bemis Library, maintained a stable budget after securing a $250,000 bi-annual federal grant in 2012, it lost the money in 2018 after it fell short of attendance goals for follow-up tests after citizenship classes. Littleton’s council then agreed to fully fund the LIRC to the tune of $300,000 through 2020 with the hope that the center could secure new grants. 

Following the economic downturn of the COVID-19 pandemic, the center’s budget was slashed to just under $150,000 for 2021. With no apparent prospect for new grants, the council voted to pull all funding, currently at $115,000, by the end of 2022. But with a rebounding economy, some council members said the time is right to restore the LIRC to pre-COVID level funding. 

“It’s a different time, I think there are things that have changed dramatically with revenues,” said Rydin, who had campaigned on restoring the center’s funding prior to her council election in November. 

At $49.7 million, the city’s 2022 general fund budget is a slight increase from the previous year, which was $45.6 million. With the unaccounted for $2.4 million in revenue, city staff seemed prepared to accommodate either a partial return of LIRC services, which would cost an additional $105,000, or a full return of services, which would cost an additional $196,000. 

But for Rydin, funding the center is not just a fiscal debate but a moral one too. 

“I think this is a values question,” she said. “What kind of community do we want to be? Don’t we want to be welcoming and inclusive, isn’t that in our Comprehensive Plan as a value?”

She went on to argue that by supporting the center, those seeking to work could do so through the LIRC’s resources, which would enhance the city’s economy as well. 

That same point was posed to council in September when a letter to council signed by 12 former Littleton mayors and councilmembers praised the center for its efforts towards diversity and inclusivity. 

“Newcomers from around the world are entrepreneurs and have brought a richness of businesses to Littleton, and LIRC has helped make this a more just and equitable community,” the letter reads. 

The move to defund the center sparked backlash from community members who urged council to reconsider its decision through letters and public comment hearings. Rydin said that when she was campaigning she heard firsthand from residents about how important the LIRC was for the community.

“I heard a lot about this when I was knocking on people’s doors,” she said. 

Some councilmembers stand by vote to defund 

The debate spurred defense from Driscoll and Councilmember Jerry Valdes, who represents Littleton’s District 2, over their September vote.

“We’re all behind it, we all think it’s a great program, but the citizens of Littleton have never agreed to spending their taxpayer dollars on this program,” Driscoll said. “Frankly, I don’t even think that 85% of the city knows this program even exists.”

Valdes, who was mayor when the September vote to defund the LIRC was held, had routinely said it was not the job of the council to fund nonprofits, referring to the LIRC’s mostly volunteer staff, with the exception of Glaucia Rabello, the center’s director. 

During the Jan. 25 meeting, Valdes said the center remains “very low” on the priority list for city funding. 

“My concern now is that we have a new council who hasn’t had the opportunity to study the budgets the way they should,” he said “And we’re already looking to bring something back that’s been cut.” 

Valdes said only 10% to 15% of the center’s clients are Littleton residents and said the city should not have to take on responsibility for services that already exist in other parts of the metro area. 

“We have far more important things to do. This service is available elsewhere,” he said. 

Valdes also implied that the city has had to delay other projects, such as road maintenance, due to budget siphons from other programs like the LIRC, which he called a “feel-good program.”

The councilmember’s remarks sparked rebuttal from Milliman, who said the argument that the LIRC does not support all residents could be applied to various other city services that still receive funding. 

“I’d love to know how many people outside the City of Littleton use the library and the museum. Are we going to start preventing them from coming into our city and using these free services?” Milliman said. “(The LIRC) is woven into the fabric of this community. It’s a very small amount of money given the overall budget. And if you think of the benefits not only locally but regionally, what this program provides … helping others who are coming to this country with nothing.”

Council lands on compromise, with at least one changed mind 

As debate continued, Mayor Schlachter ultimately sought to find consensus among the seven councilmembers on whether they would direct city staff to amend this year’s budget to provide partial or full funding for the LIRC.

Schlachter, Rydin and Milliman voiced support for a full return of funding and programs, which would allow the center to support far more clients than the roughly 50 it has currently. At its height, the center could service around 100 people. 

Driscoll and Valdes stuck to their previous vote to sunset the funding at the end of this year with no plans to bring it back. 

Councilmember Stephen Barr, who won election in November and represents Littleton’s District 3, settled on a compromise option to renew partial funding, about $105,000, to bolster some services while the city looks for regional support for the long term. Councilmember At-Large Pam Grove, who had voted to defund the center this past fall, sided with Barr in a renewed commitment to see the LIRC continue. 

“If we are going to make the promise to restore this program to its full service and capacity, I would like to map out what that roadmap would be, because I do support having these regional programs,” Barr said. 

Grove still cautioned council to avoid hastily approving funding and said the city should study the issue more to see if the center’s clients have been able to get services elsewhere. 

“I’m in favor of looking at it again,” she said. 

In a previous article from January 2021, Atim Otii, director of the City of Denver’s city-run immigrant resource center, said there are “only nine centers that offer affordable legal services in the Denver area,” with 350,000 immigrants and refugees. 

“Demand is high, and immigration is a very complex process,” Otti said, highlighting the LIRC’s ability to help fill a gap in services for the metro area. 

Rydin voiced concern that if council only threw the center a lifeline with partial funding while it waited for regional players to get involved, it could lead to a situation similar to the one it is currently in. 

“I do get really nervous about trying to put timestamps on a regional approach,” she said. 

Barr, in response, said he would ultimately support fully funding the center if a regional partnership fails to happen.  

With the majority of councilmembers supportive of at least some partial funding for the LIRC, city staff said they would bring the proposal before council as a budget amendment on Feb. 1 followed by another reading and public comment regarding the amendment on March 1. 

While Schlachter and Rydin ultimately conceded to work toward partial funding for the time being, both said they would commit to seeing the center returned to its pre-pandemic level of service. 

“For so long Littleton was an island by itself,” Schlachter said. “If you think about us as part of a broader community and not just its municipal boundaries, I think this is a valuable program … I think it’s important for Littleton to keep it going and not try to build it back up from nothing.”