The Sedgwick County Department on Aging returned $320,000 to the county’s general fund this year, disappointing some people familiar with the needs of older residents.
County commissioners created a $500,000 contingency fund for the department in August and directed staff to determine if and how the money should be used. That came after commissioners adopted a budget of $12,484,639 for the department for 2022, a 6 percent decrease from what was spent in 2021.
In a commission meeting April 6, Annette Graham, the department’s director, reported to commissioners that $180,000 of the contingency fund should be used. Based on Graham’s request, commissioners approved spending $100,000 on senior centers, $40,000 on hearing aids, $30,000 for emergency food boxes and $10,000 on eyeglasses.
That prompted 4th District Commissioner Lacey Cruse to ask whether the aging department had considered using contingency funds for senior transportation.
“Have we determined any sort of transportation needs?” Cruse said. “It looks like there’s about $320,000 left. I’m not advocating that we spend it all. But I know that transportation is a huge need in all facets no matter your age in our community.”
Graham replied that transportation “did come up, and I will tell you right now, transportation is a struggle to provide. All systems are struggling to find drivers.”
Graham said the aging department has experienced staffing shortages in its own transportation division and that other agencies and organizations are dealing with the same issue.
“We were really hesitant to put any additional funding in these … because of the challenges current providers are already having meeting the needs they have.”
Cruse then mentioned the $100,000 in contingency funds earmarked for improvements to senior centers.
“It just makes me concerned a little bit because if we’re going to invest in infrastructure that will make a better place to enjoy, but we can’t get people to the place, how do we figure to address that challenge?”
Two members of the county’s Advisory Council on Aging & Physical Disabilities also expressed concern that the aging department didn’t find more uses for the contingency funds.
“I did ask that question, ‘Why are we giving money back?’” Lavonta Williams, a former Wichita City Council member who sits on the board, said. “I see such a need for seniors in the community.”
In addition to senior transportation needs, Williams said, one possible use of contingency funds could have been addressing “food deserts,” as areas of the city without ready access to supermarkets and other healthy food options are known.
Williams said the aging department’s process of determining what contingency funds were needed seemed rushed. She would have liked the opportunity to ask community members what they think is needed.
“I don’t know if we started too late in looking at opportunities we could be involved in,” she said. “To me, it’s all about talking to the people we’re serving.”
James Burgess, an advisory council member from Derby, said the aging department “took a very passive response” to the commission’s offer of contingency funds.
“They had a chance for getting $500,000, and they opted for $180,000 … claiming there are no apparent needs in the county for assistance to the elderly.”
Burgess said senior centers and other nonprofits were given a very tight time frame in which to apply for the contingency funds.
“Most of the places couldn’t even reply to it,” he said. “I know the Derby Senior Center, the staff worked all weekend to get their proposal in.”
Burgess said the contingency funds will fall far short of meeting senior needs. Noting the cost of hearing aids, he said, “Of the $40,000 for hearing aids, I’m going to guess that’s going to reach only 10 people.”
He added that the reason senior transportation providers can’t find drivers “is they don’t pay enough money for anyone to take the jobs.”
Graham said aging department staff “would like to spend as much as we could” of the contingency funds but time constraints, other work and staffing issues made that impossible.
“We have been experiencing a lot of staff turnover and shortages,” she said.
At the April 6 commission meeting, Graham said contingency funds set aside for senior scenters would mostly likely be used for computers, furniture and other “things like that they can do this year.” Funds will be distributed on “tiered approach, based on size” of the centers, she said.
Cruse responded that “some senior centers … are better off than others,” mentioning La Familia in north Wichita as one that has struggled in recent years.
“I guess I’m kind of wondering, is the tiered approach the best approach?” Cruse said.