Senior budget sparks debate

By Joe Stumpe | August 30, 2019

Sedgwick County’s spending on senior-related services and programs won’t keep up with inflation in 2020.

County commissioners last month approved an aging services budget of $11,009,880 for next year. That’s an increase of $36,122, or .3 percent over this year.

The county’s total budget will increase by 4 percent next year, from $439.5 million to $457.4 million. Much of the increase went to pay raises for county employees and the addition of community mental health personnel.

Commissioners appeared ready to approve a reduction in spending on aging services recommended by staff before Lacey Cruse, who represents the 4th district, made a motion to add $125,000 to that part of the budget. Cruse said she did so after hearing advocates for senior citizens speak during two public hearings. The commission unanimously approved Cruse’s request, although several members expressed irritation at having to do so late in the budget process.

Meals on Wheels, which serves meals to homebound seniors and disabled people in Wichita, will receive an additional $66,000; a program that modifies wheelchairs will get $18,700; and the remainder will go for services to be determined by the Department on Aging and the county’s Advisory Board on Aging.

“There’s just not enough money to go around,” Cruse said. “That being said, I was really moved by our public comments.”

Despite representing a small percentage of overall county spending, the Department on Aging’s budget turned out to be the most contentious portion, as commissioners noted. County Manager Tom Stolz has promised a staff review of spending on aging programs to determine whether Sedgwick County is comparable with similar counties. The county operates more than a dozen programs for seniors.

Jim Burgess, a member of the county’s Advisory Council on Aging, spoke to the commission at both public hearings, first on behalf of Meals on Wheels and the wheelchair program, and then for area senior centers. The centers offer meals, recreation, exercise, socialization and more to members, many of whom are on low, fixed incomes.

Burgess noted that several centers — including those in Haysville, Oaklawn, Mulvane and Clearwater – should have received more funding under performance agreements they made with the county, based on the amount of services they offer. However, the commission has not honored those agreements and last year voted to scrap them. As a result, Burgess said, some of the centers have or will reduce their services – a forecast confirmed by a representative of the Oaklawn Center who later spoke.

“Sedgwick County has a rapidly increasing number of people who are elderly and or disabled with limited resources,” Burgess said. “It would seem to me that these people would be a priority for Sedgwick County commissioners.” Burgess also said the review promised by Stolz needs to be performed by an impartial party. “Perhaps it could be done by a university or some other source.”
Madison Shriner, director of the Park City Senior Center, asked the commission for enough money to buy three computers that the 600 seniors who visit that center each year could use.

“More and more of those seniors are at risk of becoming isolated every day,” she said.

 Commissioner Jim Howell, who represents the 5th district, restated his argument in favor of more funding for senior centers, but did not receive backing from any other commissioner. Howell acknowledged that some commissioners’ districts receive more senior-related funds than others, adding, “Guess what? The needs are greater in some districts.” Howell said that fully funding the centers’ performance agreements would cost an average of 20 cents per resident per year. 

Howell again suggested that the county’s aging services mill levy – a measure overwhelmingly approved by voters in the 1980s – be set at a static rate so that it would grow consistent with property valuations. Currently, commissioners set the rate themselves each year, collecting less than half of what they are authorized to for aging services.

“The reality is our (overall county) budget is $18 million bigger this year,” Howell said. “Don’t tell me we don’t have a little bit of money to fund this.”

Commission chairman David Dennis, who represents the third district, said he believes senior-related programs received their fair share of funding.

“We have a lot of critical needs out there and there were critical needs that weren’t filled,” he said. “We just have to weigh where we put our resources.”

Dennis said the aging services mill levy now generates more money than it did in the early 1980s, even when inflation is taken into account. He also said that several items in the aging services budget – such as dance classes and chairs to be used in a seated yoga class – “are not a priority compared to some of the things we are not funding.”

After Dennis’ second reference to “yoga chairs,” Howell responded: “What that really is, is exercise, and exercise helps our seniors stay independent and healthy and thriving in the community as long as possible, which is really what the senior centers try to do.”

Following the meeting, Cruse said in an interview that she “would personally like to see more funding” for senior-related services. “I don’t know that that will happen. I can’t speak for anyone but me.”

Commissioner Pete Meitzner, who represents the 1st District, said he won’t have an opinion on that until Stolz’s analysis is done.

“I think the total review of senior services models is going to be very valuable.”

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