County needs to balance fiscal responsibility with service level for seniors
Just as we were starting to adjust to the notion that federal assistance programs must be made available to all “senior citizens” who reach the ripe old age of 60, we learned at a County Board of Commissioners meeting that a national effort is afoot to lower the age to 55.
We don’t know how serious the effort is; it was just mentioned in passing. But given the demographics of Leelanau County, moving the minimum age five years makes little sense. Nearly one-third of county residents are already 60-years-old or older. Moving the eligible age to 55 increases the percentage to 42 percent. But promoters of more government programs should note that some 50.4 percent of county residents are 50 years old or older — enough to win every election.
It’s difficult for us to avoid being a little flippant after hearing presentations about programs run by the Area Agency on Aging and the Meals on Wheels non-profit groups. Leelanau County is receiving fewer benefits than neighboring counties from those programs because, apparently, we’ve got more than enough money already, thank you.
Commissioners were told that county taxpayers are treating Leelanau senior citizens with respect and dignity. True enough. The .275-mill property tax that funds the Leelanau County Commission on Aging generates about $620,000 annually, enough to offer essential services such as a foot care program and optional activities such as discount meal vouchers for restaurants.
Commissioners have questioned CoA funding levels for years. Revelations made at the County Board meeting last week may have given them enough reason to call for a reduction in the property tax.
Meals on Wheels manager Lisa Robitshek asked commissioners to fulfill a CoA promise made in September to provide up to $76,000 for the regional program, if a funding need arose. A $56,000 contribution was already budgeted, and will be fulfilled.
Leelanau, with a population smaller than all but two counties in the 10-county service area of the Northwest Michigan Community Action Area, is the biggest single contributor to the Meals on Wheels program. Grand Traverse County, with a population four times that of Leelanau, is providing $20,000 this year and has budgeted no contribution in 2013. Similarly, Wexford and Manistee counties have historically provided less than Leelanau, and are discontinuing funding.
The CoA’s response is to up Leelanau’s ante, which has the net effect of sending county tax monies to serve citizens in other jurisdictions. Federal guidelines and contracts require Meals on Wheels to deliver lunches throughout its service area regardless of county boundaries and what they may mean to funding levels.
That’s a disservice to the intent of the CoA millage, which was to be directed at programs for Leelanau’s seniors.
A smaller millage is needed, we believe, to scale back some senior programs — described as “fluff and bluff” by county CoA director Rosie Steffens — and force income restrictions on others.
Meals on Wheels operates a wonderful program that needs to be funded equitably by counties receiving its services. We’re glad commissioners turned down the request for a mid-year boost in funding. The fiscal problem — and there is one, as food and transportation prices have risen dramatically — needs an even-handed solution.
Leelanau County should continue to care for our senior citizens, as well as treat its taxpayers fairly. They are the same people one-third of the time, and the overlap is growing.