CoA problems should have been addressed
We have been critical, at times, of Commission on Aging (CoA) programs operated by Leelanau County. We have written that the CoA grew too quickly after approval of its own property tax in 2003, that benefits such as dining and home assistance vouchers were provided to senior citizens who were not in need of help, and that its goal, at times, seemed more bent on proving a need for the CoA millage than overseeing its effective dispersion.
We’re concerned — and saddened — by the event leading up to the “retirement” of COA director Rosie Steffens. Ms. Steffens has been an employee of the county for 26 years. She carried the needs of seniors in her heart, from playing “Santa Claus” while delivering care baskets at Christmas to personally leading seniors in need through the steps required for assistance.
But she was a poor administrator and protective manager, and should have never been put in charge of a $600,000 budget. County administrators — and county commissioners — should have recognized these shortcomings years ago. In fact, some did, but rather than butt heads against Ms. Steffens and CoA supporters, they retreated from their instincts.
The result was that Ms. Steffens was allowed to remain in a position that did not suit her administrative skills. Fault for that falls on many shoulders.
As happens so often in such cases, one event led to Ms. Steffens' resignation. Several years ago she took it upon herself to tell homemakers to inflate their mileage as a way to provide them a raise. The apparent unilateral action cost the county an estimated $50,000 to $60,000.
But there were other problems. For instance, after the County Board declined a request to up its contribution midway through a budget year to fund a regional Meals on Wheels program — commissioners had learned that Leelanau was “investing” far more than its share — the CoA called a special meeting of its advisory board to address a “lack of funding.”
The meeting was never held, as apparently cooler heads prevailed. It was a knee-jerk reaction, possibly to rev up political pressure against the County Board even though funds to the CoA were never cut.
It was that type of protectionism that allowed the CoA to operate mostly independent of oversight.
The County Board, at the direction of administrator Chet Janik, has hired a former Area on Aging administrator to review CoA programs and procedures. We give credit to Mr. Janik for following up on reimbursement questions brought to his office by a CoA employee — and to the employee herself for questioning the status quo. He has handled a sticky situation with professionalism.
The premise for the study will be to evaluate CoA programs and procedures. Mr. Janik will recommend changes to the board. We’ll judge the recommendations to determine if they reflect a desire to serve the basic needs of county seniors, or seek more to justify the present, CoA budget and millage.
With change comes opportunity. We thank Ms. Steffens for her caring work with seniors. We look forward to seeing the CoA evolve into an efficient vehicle to help the most vulnerable of our residents.