By Joe Stumpe
Sedgwick County commissioners have again decided to keep funding for area senior centers at 2010 levels, frustrating users and supporters. The centers serve thousands of residents with meals, recreation, educational activities and health services.
County funds are an important source of support for the centers. In 1982, voters overwhelmingly approved using a small portion of property taxes to help pay for their operation, but left it up to commissioners to decide how much money the centers would get each year.
“It almost seems to me like there’s an animosity against senior centers,” said Jim Burgess of Derby, a member of the Sedgwick County Advisory Council on Aging. “Not against seniors, but against the centers. I don’t understand it.”
Sixteen senior centers and smaller clubs in the county will receive a total of $620,000 from the county next year.
Commissioners Jim Howell and Michael O’Donnell voted to raise funding for four senior centers — Haysville, Oaklawn, Mulvane and Clearwater — by a total of $78,000.
Commissioners David Dennis, Richard Ranzau and Dave Unruh overruled them.
“It’s not that we don’t fund them,” Ranzau said. “Senior centers are important. They do a good job, but we have to look at overall funding and the whole picture.”
Howell, though, says the county is not living up to a performance-based agreement it made with senior centers and clubs in 2005. That agreement said the centers were to receive funding dollars based on such criteria as the number of people they serve and the kinds of activities they offer.
“In the mid 2000s, the county kept its word,” Howell said. “When the (economic) downturn hit, we got out of the habit of doing that.”
The county’s nearly $440 million budget for 2019 (up from $425 million last year) allowed commissioners to grant raises to employees, hire additional people for community health positions and the 911 emergency system, and buy new radios and record-keeping systems for the public safety and public works departments.
“This demonstrates the fact that we have the money,” Howell said.
Senior center members totaled 9,845 in Sedgwick County last year, or 14 percent of the population 65 and older.
Howell made a similar request for additional funds last year, asking for $73,000 in new money for centers in Haysville, Clearwater, Mulvane and Bel Aire. It was defeated 4-1.
In explaining their No votes, Ranzau and Unruh noted that senior centers receive about half the $1.3 million the county will spend on senior-oriented services, despite them being ranked last on a priority list of 15 such services drawn up by the county’s Department of Aging.
Nutrition programs such as Meals on Wheels, food pantries and commodities distribution top the list.
Ranzau and Unruh said the county needs to change its funding formula for senior centers. They also noted that the 2019 budget approves $100,000 more for services that help individuals continue to live at home rather than go into nursing homes (No. 4 on the priority list).
Dennis was out of town and unavailable for comment as this article was being prepared.
Howell said the priority list points to a problem with the current system of awarding funds.
In 1982, voters were told that the Sedgwick County Council on Aging – a volunteer body now known as the Advisory Council on Aging – would recommend how the money would be spent.
Today, he said, “the advisory council is not even involved.” Burgess confirmed this.
Howell pointed out that many of the services that ranked higher on the priority list, such as Meals on Wheels, operate out of senior centers.
O’Donnell acknowledged that parochial political interests probably play a role in the commission’s split.
He has three senior centers in his district; Howell has four. O’Donnell has a personal connection as well: his grandparents are regulars at the Linwood center, especially his grandfather, who loves to play cards there.
O’Donnell said he couldn’t ignore the fact that about a hundred people showed up at a county budget hearing to support the senior centers, some talking about how blood pressure and diabetes checks offered by them had saved their lives.
“I know it sounds hyperbolic, but some were in tears talking about how much of an impact this has had on their life.”
Howell has now spent two years unsuccessfully seeking more money for the centers. He believes they are the best “safety net” available for a segment of seniors.
“Our aging population is culturally changing,” he said. “They’re living longer, working later, having less children. Their children are moving away. They’re not prepared for retirement. They just don’t have a lot of support.
“I believe senior centers provide a moral, ethical solution to taking care of our senior population.”
Center’s financially unsuccessful success story
By Joe Stumpe
Jeri Myers, director of the Mulvane Senior Center, is one of those disappointed by the commission’s record on senior centers. Retired after teaching elementary school for 34 years (and 15 years coaching high school cheerleaders), she became the center’s director in 2006.
At the time, the center was classified as a “club” and received $5,000 a year from the county. Myers brought in more members and added activities and services. That brought the center’s classification to “senior center level 1;” it receives $18,000 a year.
Myers didn’t stop there. She continues to recruit members and bump up its programming. Today, it has about 500 members, 400 who make regular use of it. Many are on low, fixed incomes.
The center is a distribution point for commodities. It offers more than 40 educational programs. Exercise programs include a walking track, Zumba and yoga classes. A regular lineup of puzzles, bingo, cards, sing-alongs and other activities fill the weekly schedule.
Myers also organizes special events. About 100 people attended the Valentine’s Day dinner and took the trip to see quarter-horse races in Remington, Okla. Myers is a friend of the track’s director. “She gets us sky boxes, and it’s a whole big deal.”
According to the county’s criteria all of these activities mean that the Mulvane center should receive “level 2” funding — $35,000 a year.
But despite qualifying since 2010, the center has received no more money.
Myers, who says she works about 30 hours a week, said the county’s contribution is just enough to cover her salary and that of a part-time helper. It receives about $32,000 from the city of Mulvane and $3,000 from Sumner County each year.
If she had more money to work with, Myers said, buying a vehicle or finding some other means of providing transportation for seniors without it would be one priority. “Right now the need is great for (rides to) doctors’ offices and that sort of thing.”
Myers believes centers are a more cost-effective way of serving seniors than, for instance, the in-home program geared toward individuals for which commissioners increased funding.
“Isolation is becoming one of the biggest threats to senior citizens,” she said. “Sometimes they’ll retire and they’ll plop themselves down in a chair and that’s it. If we can prevent somebody from going into a nursing home and that saves $100,000 a year, why wait until they’re one foot in the door and then we’re going to put all that money in that?”