Wichita takes pass on centers

By Joe Stumpe | October 26, 2018

Photo by Joe Stumpe
  Northeast Senior Center in Wichita has run out of mats to hide carpet stains.

A new library for $32 million. Up to $81 million for a minor league ballpark. Twenty-five thousand dollars to help outfit a U.S. Navy warship called the USS Wichita, which will patrol the high seas.

The city of Wichita is investing in the future, but none of that largesse is going to senior centers. 

Nearly alone among incorporated areas of Sedgwick County, Wichita budgets no money for the five senior centers – Downtown, Linwood, La Familia, Northeast and Orchard Park – located within it. On the contrary, the city is charging the Linwood Senior Center $20,784 in rent this year and Orchard Park $13,776.

“Wichita seems to be caught up in other stuff, like the library and baseball field and stuff like that,” said Jim Burgess, a member of the Sedgwick County Advisory Council on Aging. “They don’t seem one bit interested in the senior area, as far as I can tell.”

Burgess says he “doesn’t have a dog in the hunt” since the city where he lives, Derby, budgets money for its senior center – $212,444 this year.

Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell and City Council members whose districts include the centers did not respond to requests for comment. Megan Lovely, who is Wichita’s communications and special events manager, referred questions about senior center funding to Sedgwick County officials, writing in an email: “The County oversees health and human services, including senior services, so this would be in their purview.”

Senior center funding has been in the news since August, when the Sedgwick County Commission decided to once again freeze county funds budgeted for the centers at the same level they’ve been since 2010. That prompted objections from users and supporters of the centers, which provided meals, recreation, health services and more to about 9,850 people on a regular basis last year, or about 14 percent of the population aged 65 and older. Local aging advocates say the centers are important to some of the county’s most vulnerable elderly, those on low incomes and lacking family support.

Wichita and tiny Bentley (population 517) are the only municipalities that don’t help fund centers. Four of the senior centers in Wichita are run by Senior Services, Inc., a nonprofit which also operates the Meals on Wheels program. La Familia is its own entity.

People familiar with the centers’ history say the city of Wichita stopped funding them in the early 1980s, after county voters approved using a small portion of property taxes to fund a variety of senior-related services. The vote authorized county commissioners to levy up to 1 mill for those services, although less than half that amount is now being collected.

“What I have been told is that once the mill levy got in place, the city said (to the county) ‘You do it now, you’ve got the mill levy in place,” said Annette Graham, director of the county’s Division on Aging. 

By contrast, when smaller communities in Sedgwick County decided to start their own community centers, they put up the money to build them, then continued to fund some of the operations. 

The situation has led to disparities in resources allocated to senior centers. Laurel Alkire, executive director of Senior Services, Inc., said it struggles each year to find enough money to operate the centers. The Orchard Park center’s air conditioning broke down last summer. The carpeting at the Northeast center has numerous large, unsightly stains. Linwood lost storage space and one of two fire exits when the city put in a new exercise facility for the general public. Linwood director Cherise Langenberg’s office is stuffed with items the center periodically sells in garage sales to raise money for its operations. A card room doubles as an exercise space.

 “We’re in a constant struggle for space,” Langenberg said.

The Linwood, Orchard Park, Northeast and La Familia centers each receive $57,000 in county money annually, or $22,000 more than the Park City center. But because of Park City’s own spending on its center, its budget is significantly larger than the Wichita centers. The Park City center has about 4,600 square feet of space, with an office, kitchen, bathrooms and one large room with moveable dividers – bright, cool and decorated for fall on a recent afternoon. 

“The city supports us great,” said one of 25 women who’d just completed a dance aerobics class there.

Among “special events” the Park City center offered members last month were a miniature golf outing and an all-day ziplining trip near Manhattan. The Orchard Park center offered flu shots and a presentation called Protect Against Breast Cancer.

 “I definitely try to keep them busy,” the Park City center’s director, Madison Shriner, said. “This is definitely a hub for not only programs and socialization but also for information and help with different things like Medicare and income taxes that older citizens in Park City need.”

Shriner, who considers herself an advocate for senior citizens everywhere, said she “has always thought it fascinating that Wichita doesn’t contribute” to its senior centers.

Derby’s senior center is the biggest and best-funded in the county, receiving $115,000 from the county and $215,000 from the city of Derby. Housed at one end of the City Hall complex, it has more than 3,000 active members – including some from outside Derby – who take part in exercise and educational programs, meals, dances, trips and more.

“The city council has just chosen that here’s the level of services we’re going to provide, and our budget reflects what it takes to do that,”  said Ted Austin, director of operations for Derby.“We get money from the county, which certainly helps, but it doesn’t pay for everything we have chosen to provide.”

The funding of senior centers in Wichita is part of a bigger discussion going on regarding senior services in general in Sedgwick County. 

In 1982, county voters overwhelmingly authorized commissioners to levy up to 1 mill of property tax to pay for senior-related spending, which in addition to the senior centers includes services such as adult day care, health screenings, medical transportation and commodity distribution. If 1 mill were collected today, that would generate about $4.9 million annually. However, county commissioners have reduced the millage rate for senior services as overall property values have grown, keeping the total amount of money collected about the same from year to year. The rate is now .494, generating $2.3 million, or about 1.6 percent of the total property taxes collected.

Commission member Jim Howell has advocated for more spending on seniors, saying there is room in the county’s $425.2 million overall budget. Howell – joined by Commissioner Michael O’Donnell – proposed increasing funding for senior centers in Haysville, Clearwater, Mulvane, Oaklawn and Bel Aire out of currently available money earlier this year. 

They were outvoted by commissioners David Dennis, Dave Unruh and Richard Ranzau. Those three commissioners argued that the centers now receive $620,000, or 49 percent, of all senior-related funds disbursed by the county even though they ranked last on a list of 15 priorities set by the county’s Division of Aging.

Howell countered the priority list mainly reflects the desire of the division to promote programs that qualify for matching federal funds. Howell believes senior centers are a good use of government money because they help keep elderly residents living on their own and out of nursing and assisted living homes. Howell also contends that too much of the property taxes collected for senior-related services – nearly $1 million this year – is going to pay the salaries of county employees who work in the Division of Aging, rather than directly benefiting seniors themselves.

U.S. Census figures show that 14 percent of the county’s population, or about 72,000 people, are aged 65 and older.

“The aging population is culturally changing,” Howell said. “They’re living longer, having few children. Their children are moving away. They just don’t have a lot of support.”

Several candidates for county commission who are on the November ballot have said funding for the centers should be increased. How that impacts senior centers in Wichita and other parts of Sedgwick County remains to be seen.

The Downtown center, in Wichita, which has about three times as many members as other centers in Wichita, is currently undergoing a $6 million renovation, which includes adding classrooms, renovating the gymnasium and tripling the size of the kitchen used for Meals On Wheels. Unless more money becomes available, Alkire can see most or all of the city’s centers being consolidated into it.

“We won’t be able to operate four centers forever,” she said. “It may be one center and doing more things out in the community. Bricks and mortar are expensive. I don’t see that as sustainable.”