2012-09-20 / Views

Time for a new beginning for CoA

Perhaps nothing says more about the state of past county Commission on Aging records than the determination by an auditing firm that mileage reports were so bad — and altered — that all reimbursements should be treated as earned income.

But there is a close second, and that would be CoA budgets, which magically projected leaving each fiscal year from 2007 through 2011 with a fund balance of $117,478.

In actual numbers, the CoA carried a fund balance of about $500,000 and usually more during the same period. The thought, we believe through our coverage, was to hurry up and find new ways to spend the money before voters found out.

The result was less than desirable, as eventually the loose spending habits of the CoA came to light. Public perception of the CoA took a beating after the CoA board promised to send $20,000 to the regional Meals on Wheels program with no noticeable benefit to Leelanau County seniors. More recently, it’s been revealed that one subcontractor by August had billed the county for a full year’s worth of work.

And when an administrative assistant went on vacation, her fill-in found enhanced mileage forms from homemakers who had been offered extra compensation by former CoA director Rosie Steffens as a way to compensate for high gas prices and a lack of wage increases.

As we’ve written before, Ms. Steffens was over her head in the position, overseeing a budget that tripled over seven years to more than $1 million. She is personable and caring toward “her” seniors. One of her favorite roles was playing Santa Claus at senior dinners around Christmas. She loves helping people — a good attribute for a geriatric social worker.

But she took the giving role too far. Leelanau County is on the hook for $15,400 in back payroll taxes and homemakers themselves will collectively have to pay income taxes on another $107,000 in unreported income over the past 3 1/2 years.

The amount paid for mileage in excess of the county policy will never be known, but has been estimated at about $84,000.

Those were some of the negative outcomes that have emerged from investigations into CoA finances and policies over the past two months. There have been others in the past, including revelations of missing paperwork for $50,000 in home heating bills paid on behalf of seniors.

But there will be positive outcomes, and it’s good to dwell on them as well. One is that no senior services have been curtailed even though the CoA is operating with only one fulltime employee along with a part-time staff. Kudos to remaining CoA workers, who have picked up the slack.

Another is that taxpayers will see a benefit. The County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday reduced the CoA property tax from .275 mills to .190 mills without any foreseeable cuts in programs. A discussion has opened up as to what services are essential — such as foot care and help with medications — and what services should be "asset tested." We’d put the senior restaurant and chore programs in this category. It makes no sense for property owners to subsidize restaurant bills and dock removal for senior citizens who don’t need the help.

That was never the intent of the dedicated senior citizen millage.

County commissioners essentially have been handed a clean canvas to redraw the workings of the CoA. They’ll be determining whether a CoA advisory board is necessary, how many employees are needed, and whether more services should be contracted out.

It’s the best of times for seniors — and all county residents, as one goal in life is to reach such an age — to provide their input.

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