“In this case, you’ve got public resources being used to shield the people they serve from the information they want,” she said.
Alliance operates similar to other service-provider agencies that lobby at the Capitol. Colorado’s 17 community mental health centers pay a fee to the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council, which spends some of the funds on lobbying, for example. Still, the lobbying arm for the disability system is unique in the extent of its tumultuous relationship with families taking care of kids with disabilities.
Parents have referred to the payments to Alliance Colorado, which represents the 20 boards at the Capitol, as a “secret fee.” They also have complained that Alliance is a “closed-door club” that includes just 25 of the hundreds of agencies that provide services for people with disabilities. Before admitting a new member, Alliance seeks recommendations from other agencies.
Despite requests from The Denver Post, Alliance refused to release its annual budget or a list of membership fees it receives from its 45 members— 20 communitycentered boards and 25 agencies that employ therapists and home aids for people with disabilities.
Alliance has an annual budget of $667,000, of which $574,000 comes from membership dues, according to the nonprofit’s federal tax records. Alliance reported spending $45,000 on lobbying, but it is unclear whether preparation for lobbying and meeting on public policy were counted as lobbying. Lobbyists have discretion when reporting their hours — some count all their work, while others count only face time with lawmakers.
Tax records show at least two of the 20 boards have spent money each year on their own lobbyists. Rocky Mountain Human Services, the target of the damaging city audit, recently suspended its lobbyist, whowas paid $12,000 per year, as part of a cutback in administrative costs.
Membership dues in Alliance are 0.15 percent of each board or agency’s budget for intellectual and developmental disability services, said Josh Rael, executive director of Alliance. He told The Denver Post to ask each of the 45 members for their fee payment because it was not the “role” of Alliance to release the information.
“I truly regret you are taking this as a lack of transparency,” Rael said.
Cost of membership
Several of the 20 communitycentered boards across Colorado divulged the cost of membership in Alliance, which ranged from $600 to $42,909. They said membership provides helpful information about state and federal policy that otherwise would be hard to keep up with because of limited staffing.
People with disabilities and their parents said they realize the lobbying dollars would not buy a huge amount of services or therapy, but the fact the money is spent to influence lawmakers with little input from families is a “gut punch.”
“When people are struggling for services and when they have caregivers who are being paid low wages and can’t make ends meet, that just punches you in the gut,” said Julie Reiskin, executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, an advocacy group that represents people with disabilities and their families. “We are poor. The system kind of makes us poor. We can’t afford lobbyists.”
Alliance speaks for the boards who manage Medicaid funds and other benefits for people with disabilities, not for the families and caregivers, said Reiskin and other advocates.
For example, families pushed for proposed legislation from Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, that would force the boards to answer public information requests and require the state auditor to review Alliance’s books every five years. Families also have failed to gain traction over the years on a proposal that would allow parents to choose to directly manage their children’s funds instead of using a community-centered board as a fiscal intermediary.
Using “public dollars to lobby for public dollars” is fundamentally bothersome, said Marcia Tewell, executive director of the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council, another advocacy group in tune with families. When cities pass mill levies for disability services, people assume the money will go to the “cute kids” pictured on campaign yard signs, not toward fundraising and lobbying, she said.
“The process seems like a wellfed amoeba that cannot resist feeding itself even more, while the individuals for which the money is intended go hungry,” Tewell said.
Alliance officials, however, said it is common practice for nonprofits to belong to professional associations that lobby. They also acknowledged the trade association needs towork on its relationship and communication with people with disabilities and their families. Public policy director Ellen Jens by said showing families what Alliance accomplishes is difficult because of the “incredible complexity” of the financial systemthat funds people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Alliance’s Rael said the organization’s main goal for years has been to eliminate or reduce waitlists for disability services. “We are all greatly concerned by the perception among some parents that Alliance works against families,” he said. “We are having discussions internally aboutwhat additional transparency solutions we can offer from Alliance.”
The Denver Post requested the budgets of the 20 community-centered boards to review lobbying and administrative costs. A handful, including Rocky Mountain Human Services, provided their full budget, while several provided only a one- or two-page budget summary.
The executive director of the board serving Boulder County, Imagine!, posted a video on YouTube after the audit of Rocky Mountain saying “Imagine! is not Rocky Mountain Human Services.” Mark Emery touted his board’s fiscal responsibility and its transparency.
In an e-mail, Imagine!’s director of public relations Fred Hobbs told The Denver Post: “I’m afraid I can’t share our detailed budget.” Imagine!’s membership annual dues to Alliance total $33,040, Hobbs said.
Developmental Pathways in Englewood, among the largest of the community-centered boards, released its federal tax forms and a summarized budget but not its itemized budget.
Sen. Aguilar said she introduced her transparency bill in part because she learned the majority of the community-centered boards, including Rocky Mountain, use the same auditing firm, which did not uncover the problems cracked open by Denver City Auditor Tim O’Brien.