County balks on senior meals request
Leelanau County commissioners have balked on a request to increase funding by $20,000 for the Meals on Wheels program, saying other counties pay far less — or nothing — for the same level of service.
Leelanau is still in line to contribute $56,000 in 2012 toward the regional program that delivers lunches daily to senior citizens through a volunteer corps of drivers, far more than any other county in the 10-county jurisdiction of the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency.
Commissioners gave Meals on Wheels manager Lisa Robitshek an earful Tuesday morning during their monthly executive committee meeting — causing county administrator Chet Janik to apologize for all the negativity toward a popular program for senior citizens.
But Janik, nonetheless, felt the same as most commissioners. “People feel there is a shotgun to our head demanding $20,000,” Janik said. “It’s a perception that Leelanau County is providing more than its share because we have a millage.”
Robitshek preferred to look at the county’s contribution to the program, which is mostly funded through federal and state grants, as a “model for taking care of its seniors” that other counties should emulate.
Financial information provided by Robitshek to commissioners prior to the meeting indicated that other counties are headed in the other direction.
For instance, Grand Traverse County contributed $30,000 last year to the regional Meals on Wheels program, reduced its allocation to $20,000 this year — and is budgeting nothing for 2013. Grand Traverse has a population more than four times larger than Leelanau.
Wexford County provided $10,000 to the program for several years, reduced its contributions in 2010 and 2011, and is providing nothing in its current budget. Manistee County has also stopped funding Meals on Wheels. Both have larger populations than Leelanau County. Missaukee has never funded Meals on Wheels.
Yet qualified senior citizens residing in every county within the organization’s service area are provided homedelivered meals.
“When we pay into it, that means there is more for another county,” said commission chair Tom Van Pelt. “If we weren’t contributing money, that (grant) money would be coming here.”
Said commissioner Richard Schmuckal: “I can’t support this because Leelanau County already pays more than all the other counties combined.”
Because of Leelanau’s high property values, the voter-approved .275 millage for seniors — the lowest in the 10-county region — provides $619,800 in funding. Benzie County levies .66 mill that generates $725,000; Manistee levies .3 mill that provides $330,000. As budgets have tightened in other counties, some have responded by spending more on internally run programs and providing less for Meals on Wheels.
Earlier in the same meeting, Area Agency on Aging executive director Robert Schlueter ran into the same discussion. His request for a vote of support for the Aging agency was approved 5-0 with commissioners David Marshall and Chauncey Shiflett absent — but not without some questioning.
Said Schmuckal, “It appears like, because we have more money with our Commission on Aging, that in Leelanau County we are not getting our fair share (of services).”
Replied Schlueter, who resides in Leland, “I don’t think fair share would be an accurate description of it. We always look for the most need. Our primary goal is to look at the need of the individual. And that will flow within a county from one year to another year.” He suggested that to receive more regional funds, Leelanau CoA director Rosie Schaub should make requests.
One reason for the lateness of the Meals on Wheels request resulted from miscommunication, Janik said. Robitshek said her organization was informed at a CoA board meeting in September 2011 that an additional $20,000 would be available. However, the Meals on Wheels funding approved the following month by commissioners in the 2012 budget was for $56,000, with no mention of an impending need. Robitshek sought the funds midway through the present fiscal year after food prices rose 28 percent and demand jumped 20 percent.
“It appears we have an internal problem here,” said Janik. “Because if the Commission on Aging made a decision in September, they are only an advisory commission. No one came to this board to make this request ... you all along thought this money was set aside, when that never happened.”
The problem between commissioners and the CoA may go deeper. Commissioner Jean Watkoski, who also sits on the county Aging commission board, said she regularly hears that the county is spending too much money on “frivilous programs.”
“If there is too much millage, then roll it back,” she said.
Steffens attended the meeting, sitting at the front table with Robitshek before commissioners.
“Our board is looking at eliminating other programs, the fluff and buff programs, if you will,” Steffens told the County Board. Although the CoA does not run a senior center, it has hired a number of private vendors to offer a variety of services to seniors ranging from dance lessons to computer training. The core of the CoA’s budget is spent on more essential programs dealing with health and other needs.
The CoA has been supported by residents and voters. In public comment at the end of the meeting, Carolyn Retenbach, a member of the Northwest Community Action Agency, spoke about how much help Leelanau County provides its seniors.
“I want the board to continue with that caring action,” she said.