2017-04-13 / Front Page

County to slash senior services budget

By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

Effective immediately, Leelanau County residents over the age of 60 applying for help from the county’s Senior Services department may not receive the help they need and could be put on a waiting list.

A projected $130,000 shortfall in the department’s budget for 2017 this week forced the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners to order that substantial cuts be made in the department’s programs.

The board’s decision was made during a special meeting Tuesday afternoon. Customarily, the full board considers issues during an executive session on the second Tuesday morning of each month and makes decisions the following Tuesday evening.

However, the Senior Services budget situation is so dire it required immediate action, county officials said.

Starting this week, anyone applying for a variety of programs offered through the department will be told those services may not be forthcoming until the budget crisis is resolved – probably not until next year. Any new applicants for respite care, personal care, medication management, and homemaking services will be put on a waiting list.

Needy senior citizens currently receiving those services will continue to receive them through this year. But that is happening only because, as part of its action Tuesday afternoon, the County Board agreed to cut the projected budget deficit in half by transferring $65,000 of general fund money into the department’s coffers as an emergency measure.

Normally, more than 90 percent the department’s annual budget of roughly $800,000 is covered by a 0.275-mill property tax levy that 86-percent of Leelanau County voters renewed most recently in 2014.

The programs for which waiting lists will be created are all “means-tested,” meaning that the assistance only goes to senior citizens who can’t afford the services. Some other programs for which means testing is not applied – for example, half-off dining vouchers – will be phased out by this summer. Most of the voucher programs have already been paid for and comprise only 9 percent of the department’s overall budget.

Department head April Missias told the county board her department’s budget crisis is being driven in part by a sudden spike in the numbers of senior citizens seeking help from the department coupled with a precipitous rise in the percentage of those over the age of 60 residing in the county.

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of seniors applying for means-tested “unmet needs” financial assistance programs increased about 30 percent, from 90 applicants to 120 applicants. Meanwhile, the overall population of seniors residing in Leelanau County rose from 32 percent of the county’s 21,708 residents, enumerated in the 2010 Census, to a Census Bureau estimate of 39 percent in 2015, or 8,572 of the county’s 21,981 residents.

Missias said that in 2017, some 1,640 county seniors have received services of one sort or another from the county’s Senior Services department. She said that because of the rapidly increasing numbers of needy seniors residing in the county, making budget projections has been difficult at best.

County administrator Chet Janik noted that in 2012, the Senior Services department, known then as the Commission on Aging, was operating under different management when substantial financial accounting irregularities were uncovered. The county subsequently reorganized the department, hired new leadership and ordered that the department spend down its fund balance.

That fund balance has gone down yearly since then and is now to the point that the department will run out of money before the end of the year unless the county board does something, Janik said.

The Commission on Aging which formerly oversaw the department has been replaced by a committee of the County Board. The chairman of the County Board, District No. 3 Commissioner Will Bunek, also chairs the Senior Services Committee.

The committee has met three times in recent weeks to work with Missias and her staff to gain a better understanding of the budget problems and come up with a solution. Bunek explained at the special County Board meeting Tuesday afternoon that Missias and the committee were seeking guidance from the full board about what steps to take to solve the problem. A new millage election is not slated until next year.

Bunek said the board could order Missias to begin cutting programs immediately with no infusion of county general fund money, provide a partial infusion of general fund money to the department, or provide all the $130,000 the department is lacking to cover this year’s expenses.

District No. 2 Commissioner Deb Rushton said she would prefer that programs be cut and no additional money be transferred to the department. Other commissioners expressed support for covering at least half of the Senior Services department’s budget shortfall with a transfer from the general fund.

The vote to cover half of the department’s budget deficit with $65,000 from the county’s general fund was 4-2 with Bunek and Rushton opposed. District No. 7 Commission, Melinda Lautner, was absent.

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