2017-04-20 / Views

Compromise right for senior programs

our opinion

For the second time in four years, cuts are planned in services offered to senior citizens by Leelanau County. Why?

The reasons are relatively simple to pinpoint. They dovetail in many ways into the same equation threatening the future of Social Security and Medicaid — a growing number of users subsidized by fewer payers.

The analagy loses some validity in that the number of payers in a county program funded by property taxes remains relatively steady over time. But as more county residents climb above the magic age of 60 that makes them eligible through a federal mandate for services accorded older Americans, it also makes less sense to tax them more to pay for services they might otherwise afford.

Those are problems beyond the ability of county commissioners and officials to control. An easy answer to the latest Senior Services budget woes would be the raise the minimum age in the Older Americans Act, approved into law some 52 years ago, that empowers the federal government to distribute funds to states to help individuals age 60 and over. Grants received by Leelanau County set the minimum age requirement.

The age threshold may have made sense in 1965; not so much today. But upping the age to something more sensible, say 65, would take an act of Congress. Good luck.

The county budget shortfall has brought out a chorus of finger-pointers whose memory of the first round of cuts in 2012 is different than ours. In that case, the County Board was told by a former director that the Commission on Aging was carrying a $500,000 fund balance. A vote-approved millage in 2008 had overwhelmed the CoA with funding. Commissioners reckoned that the prudent step would be to lower the voter-approved property tax from 0.265-mill to 0.190-mill.

Then a special audit ordered to clear up financial disparities put the fund balance at about $350,000, which eroded more quickly than anticipated. Cuts were enacted in 2013, but services were restored after commissioners raised the rate to .275 mill on Winter 2014 taxes.

Voters renewed the property tax later that year at the 0.275-mill level.

The latest shortfall, however, is more structural in nature. Senior Services staff efforts, led by director April Missias, to spread word about the services offered by the county have been very successful — too successful, in fact, for property tax revenues to accommodate.

Also, the sheer number of people achieving the age of 60 in Leelanau County has been staggering. Fewer than 7,000 were counted in the 2010 Census, while an estimate put the number at 8,572 in 2015.

A new millage election can be scheduled for 2018 — too late to help in the present budget year.

It’s been a slow-moving problem that commissioners have known about for many months. When confronted last week, they compromised.

The board voted 4-2 to split a projected $130,000 Senior Services budget deficit in 2017 down the middle. Chair Will Bunek and commissioner Deb Rushton, perhaps the board’s most conservative members, were opposed. The county will anty up $65,000 from its fund reserve while ordering Ms. Missias to cut programs to cover the balance.

That won’t be easy. Seniors already receiving important services such as respite care, personal care, medication management and homemaking services will continue to be helped. However, a waiting list is being established for new enrollees.

Those programs are means-tested to ensure people receiving services cannot afford them on their own. But other programs, such a “half-off” dining program, are not means tested. We’ve been told they represent “only” 9 percent of Senior Service’s overall budget — but that budget has grown to more than $800,000.

We suggest means testing all programs, and perhaps doing away with the dining vouchers. They’ve been controversial. If a higher millage rate is truly needed — and we do expect such a request next year— then why not eliminate an optional program today?

As we stated, budget cuts in county senior programs dovetail problems being encounted at many levels in providing social programs. More discussions will ensue as to whether local, state or federal governments are best equipped to help their citizens.

For now, though, more funds are needed to continue servicing seniors. We support the $65,000 allocation from county reserves to continue senior programs.

Return to top