2017-04-06 / Life in Leelanau

Aging population puts strain on Senior Services budget

By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

Leelanau County Senior Services is losing money at an unstable rate.

That’s because an increasing number of senior citizens residing in Leelanau County are requesting help through a variety of programs.

A special committee of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners was scheduled this morning to finalize a set of budget recommendations which the full board will consider at a special meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Officials say they fear the Senior Services department will not be able to remain afloat financially beyond this year unless revenues increase or spending declines. The department’s spending plan for 2017 outlines $874,000 in expenses and just $786,000 in revenues, resulting in an $88,000 shortfall.

In 2016, the budget shortfall was even bigger, approximately $118,000.

The shortfalls have been taken out of the department’s reserve fund balance which, at the beginning of this year was just $105,000. By the end of this year, the fund balance is expected to fall to about $17,000.

Senior Services director April Missias said her department’s financial woes are being driven in part by rapid growth in the number of people age 60 and older residing in Leelanau County. In fact, Leelanau County has the “oldest” population of 10 counties in northwest lower Michigan.

In the 2010 Census, 32 percent of the county’s 21,708 residents were age 60 and older, and thus qualified for benefits through the county’s Senior Services department. A Census Bureau estimate for 2015 put the percentage of those 60 and older at 39 percent, or 8,572 of the county’s 21,981 residents.

Antrim County is the next “oldest” county with 35 percent of its residents over 60. Grand Traverse and Wexford Counties are the “youngest” with just 25 percent of residents over 60.

Missias said two areas in her department’s budget are of greatest concern. One of the areas, an “unmet needs” program, provides financial subsidies to seniors who are having trouble paying all their bills. These include bills for heat and utilities, home repairs, medical expenses, legal assistance, dental assistance, vision assistance and hearing aids.

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of senior citizens applying for “unmet needs” assistance increased about 30 percent, from 90 applicants to 120 applicants. Anyone applying for such assistance is “means tested” and may be provided assistance on a sliding scale depending on their income and other assets.

A single senior living at or below the poverty level of $11,880 per year could receive up to $800 per year in assistance for heating and utilities, for example. Benefits end for a single senior living at 200 percent of the poverty level and would be set at a maximum of $200 per year for heating and utility assistance.

In all, some 137 seniors applied for and were eligible for “unmet needs” assistance this year, Missias said. Most of them have no income other than Social Security.

“We also have a lot of seniors who apply for assistance, but never present us with a bill for reimbursement because they’ve found a way to pay it themselves,” Missias said. “What we’ve seen is that people are really reluctant to seek public assistance — we haven’t found anyone who is just trying to get something for nothing.”

A second area of concern in the budget involves an array of in-home services that are provided through the Senior Services department. These include personal care, respite care, medication management and homemaking services. Of these, only the homemaking services require a “means test.”

The number of seniors seeking “inhome” services has jumped about 27 percent in the past year, from 148 in 2015 to 188 in 2016. These include two hours of care per week for help bathing, for example, or four hours of respite care per week to give senior family members a break from providing care for other family members.

Missias noted that her department offers several “voucher” programs for seniors that do not require a detailed application or a means test. These include vouchers for subsidized snow removal, restaurant dining, and foot care.

“The voucher programs amount to less than 7 percent of our budget,” Missias said. “We definitely need to look at where to cut all of our programs, but fewer seniors are asking for dining vouchers — we had a lot left over last year.”

The foot care program remains popular, however.

“One of the problems in determining exactly how much we’ll need in each year’s budget is determining how much demand there’ll be,” Missias said. “Some winters are milder than others, so assistance for home heating fluctuates along with requests for snow removal vouchers.”

Leelanau County has been operating special programs for senior citizens since at least 1975 when the Leelanau County Commission on Aging was established with a $134,000 general fund allocation by the County Board.

The first millage request for funding was in 2002 at a millage rate of 0.275 for six years. The same millage request of 0.275 was renewed in 2008 for six years.

The Commission on Aging was renamed Leelanau County Senior Services in December 2012. In 2014 voters renewed the 0.275 Senior Services millage for four years.

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