Senior council shifts from advice to advocacy

By Joe Stumpe

A group of seniors charged with advising Sedgwick County commissioners is embracing another role –  advocacy. Whether they can persuade the county commission to increase funding for aging services after years of flat budgets or small increases remains to be seen.

At the last two monthly meetings of the Sedgwick County Advisory Council on Aging, members and guest speakers spent considerable time talking about the need for more aging services and how the advisory council could help make that happen. 

It is, council members admit, a change of pace for the body, whose members are appointed by county commissioners. For as long as current members can remember, the council has exercised little or no input into how much county tax money is raised for aging services and how that money is spent.

“For me personally, it took me two years to figure out why I was there,” said Jim Burgess of Derby, who’s been the council’s most outspoken member.

County Commissioner Jim Howell seems to have gotten the ball rolling with his appearance before the advisory council in March.

“To the extent we haven’t funded (aging services) in the past, it’s been based on comments that we don’t have the funds available,” Howell said. “I would challenge that. We’ve grown the budget by $25 million over the last couple years.”

Howell pressed for more county funding for senior centers the last two years but was outvoted by other commissioners. The commission ignored, and then finally scrapped, a performance agreement with the centers that should have given them more money for meeting certain goals.

The operators of other programs operated for seniors may have stopped asking for additional money because they figured it was pointless, Howell said.

Howell suggested that advisory council members push for the county to change the way it currently funds aging programs. In 1982, voters overwhelmingly authorized the commission to levy up to 1 mill for those services. However, the commission has consistently reduced the mill rate as property valuations have risen, from a high of .864 mill to .494 for the current year. 

As a result, property taxes annually collected and dedicated to aging services since 2000 have risen just 18 percent, while total property taxes collected by the county grew by 84 percent during the same period. In addition to senior centers, the money is used for programs such as Meals on Wheels, health screenings, adult day care and medical transportation.

Howell said the county should establish a static mill rate for aging services – meaning it would grow with the economy – as the county does for Wichita State University.

“Wichita State has a 1.5 mill levy. We don’t debate that. We trust them to do the best they can for this community.”

Joe Brown, the advisory council’s chairman, weighed in at the same meeting, saying members “are the stewards of a legacy of advocacy” in reference to the people who campaigned successfully in 1982 for the aging programs mill vote. “We owe it to the people who came before us.”

Two of those people – Liz Hicks and Irene Hart – addressed the council and got an enthusiastic reception at its April meeting. Hicks, a retired pharmacist and longtime political activist, recalled that the 1982 aging mill vote “passed by a two-to-one margin, which is unheard of for a tax increase,” and seemed surprised to learn that county commissioners had been reducing it in recent years.

“Most of us assumed, with inflation, that would have to go up over time.”

Hicks and Hart told council members they should form alliances with people who provide or benefit from aging programs and together press county commissioners “to step up the mill rate to meet the need,” in Hicks’ words. Assemble information about seniors who are on waiting lists for Meals on Wheels, transportation and other services, she added.

 “You don’t have to be splashy,” she said. “You just have to be truthful and show how much you care.”

Hart suggested targeting county commissioners with a telephone campaign, then joked, “I didn’t say that.”

Brown called the women’s advice “priceless” and said it’s the council’s role to make sure aging programs “don’t get diluted, don’t get forgotten.” 

He also distributed a fact sheet showing what he called the “dramatic” increase in the county’s elderly population. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of residents 60 and older grew from 81,965 to 97,508, or 18 percent. 

The advisory council’s two newest members – Jeri Myers and Lavonte Williams – are both taking an active role. Myers, who is director of the Mulvane Senior Center, was appointed by Howell, while Williams, a former Wichita city council member and vice mayor, was appointed by newly-elected County Commissioner Lacey Cruse.

At the April meeting, Myers shared a story about an elderly Mulvane resident who’d been denied a ride by the county’s senior transportation program because she lived on the Sumner County side of Mulvane, even though she was trying to reach a destination in Sedgwick County. Myers said the woman was eventually able to get the ride.

“So yay for Sedgwick County,” Myers said.

Williams, after a discussion of aging programs that are underfunded, asked, “How did we not know this was needed before budget discussions took place?”

Burgess used the April meeting to win approval from the council for several supplementary budget requests, to be presented to county commissioners. One was for about $65,000 to help the Meals on Wheels program reduce its waiting list, one was for about $47,000 to help a wheelchair repair program do the same, and one was for $30,000 to keep the Oaklawn Senior Center open.

“There is still a great demand for funds out there,” Burgess said. The wheelchair program’s waiting list is currently 37 days, he said. “For 37 days, those people are housebound or bedbound.”

County commissioners are currently in the process of formulating the 2020 budget. Deputy County Manager Tim Kaufman told advisory council members he “will be happy to carry this request forward” but the “likelihood may not be great” of it being approved.

Howell said that at this point, he’s pessimistic about getting commission approval for changes he and the advisory council are seeking.

“Until I get them to show some interest in the topic, I don’t know that anything’s going to change,” he said.

The county commission is scheduled to conduct hearings on the 2020 budget on May 8-10 and May 13-14. The public can attend but not speak at those meetings. However, the public is invited to speak at budget hearings scheduled for July 24 and Aug. 5.

Contact Joe Stumpe at joe@theactiveage.com.

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