August 4, 2012

New Sedgwick County budget could bring cuts to senior centers

Lois Huddlestun started volunteering for Park City Senior Center in 2003, after her mother died. At first, she just came to the center every Tuesday for a few hours – “to keep the building open.”

Lois Huddlestun started volunteering for Park City Senior Center in 2003, after her mother died. At first, she just came to the center every Tuesday for a few hours – “to keep the building open.”

Now the 80-year-old Huddlestun leads chair exercise classes twice a week. She also attends get-togethers on Mondays, speaker events on Wednesdays, and bingo games, “finger food” dinners and Wii bowling sessions on Thursdays.

“It just makes you feel good to know that you know people and they know you, and if you don’t show up for something, some of them may call you and be, ‘Hey, were you sick? How come you didn’t come over today?’ ” Huddlestun said. “It’s a good outlet for someone who lives alone.”

But some of those good times might soon come to an end.

The budget proposed for Sedgwick County next year includes a 10 percent funding cut for its 20 senior centers. The same reduction would apply to physical disabilities programs and community-based services such as foster grandparents, senior employment and Alzheimer’s care.

Altogether, the Sedgwick County Department on Aging would face a $201,000 budget cut next year. The reduction is part of a proposed plan to eliminate a $9.3 million deficit in the county’s overall budget. Other measures include cutting 113 jobs, closing the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch and reducing funding for the zoo, the extension center and Exploration Place.

“We looked at 908 programs, and out of those we reduced a whole bunch,” said County Manager William Buchanan, who presented the budget proposal in mid-July. The Department on Aging “was just another one of the priorities.”

County commissioners will vote on the budget Aug. 15. Until then, it is open to feedback from the community.

Several people have contacted commissioners about the proposed budget cuts for the Department on Aging.

“They don’t want to lose the funding,” said Commissioner James Skelton. “They count on me saying that the programs have kept their health because it’s giving them activities and things to look forward to each day.”

Skelton said he is concerned about reducing the operating budgets for senior centers because that might affect the entire program. He has also received feedback about senior employment services.

“When it comes to some functions of the government, this is one that I consider at the top of the list – programs that keep people healthy and active,” Skelton said.

Budget cuts for senior centers could affect the number of hours they stay open and the programs and activities they offer, said Vicki Shepard, director of the Park City Senior Center.

County Commissioner Dave Unruh said that as the county tries to overcome its deficit, cuts are going to have to go across the board.

“That means that we are going to cut some out of physical disabilities funding, some of the senior citizens centers and some out of the aging community-based services,” Unruh said. “It’s a difficult decision, but I think it’s going to have to be made.”

One of the main roles of the Department on Aging is to keep people out of nursing homes, Buchanan said. That was his main criterion when he prioritized the funding for senior services.

Buchanan said the main programs that keep people out of nursing homes are transportation and “in-home” services – such as Meals on Wheels and Roving Pantry. Senior centers and community-based services serve that function to a lesser extent.

“We think these are the ones that will affect the outcome the least,” he said. “It’s just a matter of priority.”

Once the budget is voted on by commissioners, it will be up to the Department on Aging to perform the cuts. Usually, the department’s staff works together with its advisory board to analyze the community’s need and the performance of different programs and providers.

In the case of senior centers, it wouldn’t be a reduction “across the board,” said director Annette Graham, and not all senior centers would suffer budget cuts. Instead, the board would look at the performance of each center and reduce the funds for those with lower functioning levels.

The Department on Aging went through a series of smaller budget cuts for its disability programs a couple of years ago, Graham said. But they were absorbed internally and none of the providers – organizations and nonprofits that provide services for people with disabilities – were affected.

“We’re no longer able to do that now,” she said, “because the projected cuts are so large.”

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