Seniors fear empty tables at lunch sites
Five senior lunch sites, including one in El Dorado Hills, could end up on the budgetary chopping block.
The proposed cuts are a starting point in Human Services Department budget negotiations scheduled Nov. 3. El Dorado County Chief Administrative Officer Gayle Erbe-Hamlin, searching for ways to shave $11 million from the county’s $450 million budget, has proposed cutting $400,000 from the $1.4 million Senior Nutrition Program.
Human Services Director Daniel Nielson, who’s already endured budget slashes over the last two years, told the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors in September that a cut that size would likely require the elimination of five site coordinator positions for outlying senior nutrition sites. Senior lunches in El Dorado Hills, Diamond Sprints, Pollock Pines, Greenwood and Somerset are at stake.
Each site coordinator drives the food to the senior center, helps serve it and works with volunteers on the home meal delivery routes, said Nielson
The staff of 11.4 supports 172 volunteers who deliver hot meals to home-bound seniors daily. More than half of the $1.4 million program cost is covered by a combination of USDA funds and a $3 “donation” requested of from each meal recipient.
Seniors are asked to pay what they can. The average donation in El Dorado Hills was $2.22 last year. Seniors in Placerville ponied up an average of $2.66 per meal. South Lake Tahoe seniors managed only $1.81.
In the 2009-10 budget year, the program provided an average of 228 meals per day at the seven senior nutrition sites, and delivered an average of 347 home meals. Many also got cold meals delivered on Thursday or Friday for weekend consumption.
“We recognize that the program is about more than nutrition,” said Nielson. “Socialization, education and activities are also important.”
The human interaction that’s built into the home deliveries is even more important. “It’s a real safety net,” Nielson explained.
If the sites are cut Nielson said home deliveries would be accomplished either though contracts with local agencies, such as schools, or by providing frozen meals less frequently.
In a recent memo to the Board of Supervisors, Yvonne Griffin, the high-energy chair of the El Dorado Hills Senior Council, evoked the late Moni Gilmore, who battled tirelessly for the center which now bears her name.
“Moni would roll over in her grave at the possibility of closing the Senior Nutrition Program she fought so hard for,” said Griffin, who’s girding her loins for her own battle in the county board chambers.
The county currently spends $27,350 maintaining the site, plus an estimated $12,000 on janitorial service.
If the food goes, Griffin worries the facility won’t be far behind. “If they can’t afford to run the nutrition program, they’re not going to want to pay to keep the building open.”
Nielson counters, “There’s way too much good stuff going on in El Dorado Hills for us to close that place down. We’ll find the money to keep the doors open, at least through this first round of cuts.”
Other local agencies that might be able to help out include the El Dorado Hills Fire Department and the Community Services District.
With Gilmore serving on the board, the Fire Department first leased its former fire station to the county for a dollar a year then later sold it at fraction of its value to be used as a senior center. Firefighters still volunteer to serve holiday meals for the seniors.
The center is currently a partnership between the county and the El Dorado Hills Community Services District. The CSD pays a full-time coordinator, Janet Kenneweg, who works closely with the volunteer Senior Council to provide a full schedule of activities at the site, including a senior newsletter.
Nielson has already asked the CSD to consider covering the cost of facility maintenance.
When the county initiated Monday furloughs last February, the Senior Council took matters into its own hands for nine weeks. “We went shopping, produced better lunches and got bigger turnouts on those Mondays,” recalled Griffin. “We did all the work ourselves.”
Cost? “About $6 per meal, buying everything at retail,” said Griffin. “But it was a lot of work. We couldn’t do it five days a week.”
The projected average cost of county-provided and federally subsidized senior meals in the 2010-11 budget year is $8.45 each.
Roughly 80 seniors turned out at the El Dorado Hills Senior Center last week to hear District 2 Supervisor Ray Nutting try to explain the proposed cuts that threaten their lunch program.
County revenues are down, he said. Assessed values which drive property tax and fund county government dropped and won’t return soon.
The county is projecting lower tax revenues across the board, according to Erbe-Hamlin’s budget reports — property taxes: -4 percent; sales taxes: -11 percent; vehicle license fees: -4 percent.
Nutting accused state legislators of delaying revenue transfers to local governments, creating cash flow problems for the county. His board recognizes the importance of senior programs but government’s top two priorities are public safety and roads, said Nutting.
The “Law and Justice” budget category consumes 65 percent of the county’s general fund, he said, half of which is the Sheriff’s Department, which the board is hesitant to cut.
District 2 also contains senior nutrition sites in Somerset’s Pioneer Park and in Pollock Pines, the loss of which are a concern to Nutting.
“They’re on the table too,” he said. “But just because it’s on the table doesn’t mean we’ll cut it.”
At one point Nutting told the seniors, “If we get to the point where we are laying off deputy sheriffs … then you have something to worry about.” But then he apparently realized the CAO’s recommendation includes a whopping $1.6 million in cuts in Law and Justice.
“We might be laying off deputies,” he conceded, adding, “The cost of senior lunches doesn’t put that big a dent in the overall budget.”
“I believe in this first $5 million you guys will be in good shape,” he said. “I’m hoping there are three votes to do that.”
Nutting encouraged the seniors to send their “Moni equivalent” up to the county meetings to send a powerful message to the supervisors. “You have three supervisors in El Dorado Hills so your voice will be heard.”
CSD Director Bill Vandegrift interrupted Nutting to assure the seniors he’d represent both the CSD and El Dorado Hills seniors before the board, and do everything possible to maintain senior activities in El Dorado Hills.
Even though Vandegrift might look good in wide brimmed hat, the “Moni equivalent” will likely be Griffin, who lacks Gilmore’s bulldog fortitude but is every bit as passionate about her seniors. “I’ll be there,” she said.
Lou Ann Partridge of Rescue leads a senior bridge group in El Dorado Hills, and said many seniors need the daily meal. “You see them bringing in Tupperware to take home their leftovers,” she said.
But for many the center is much more than a nutritious meal. “This place is a lot of fun for us,” she said.
Her dozen-or-so bridge players made it clear they’d gather in the facility with or without the lunch program.
In addition to a dozens of formal activities offered before, after and during the lunch program, there are frequent informal activities, including carpools to theaters and shopping as far away as San Francisco.
Joyce Mathey of Rescue worried, “If lunch goes, the programs aren’t far behind.”
Many elderly El Dorado Hills residents bought in the ’60s and ’70s when “the houses here were pretty reasonable,” she said.
Pat Nathan comes to El Dorado Hills from Cameron Park to teach line dance and get a good lunch. “I’d come even without the lunch,” she said. “I challenge you to find another senior center in the entire region with as many activities as this.”
At Nutting’s lunch table, 19-year El Dorado Hills resident Ray Martin made it clear he was there for the food rather than the activities. “This is my main meal of the day,” he said. “I don’t know how to cook, and the food here is good most days. Sure, they have an occasional off day, but so did my wife when she cooked for me.”