2017-05-11 / Front Page

Cuts continue for county senior services

Chair had dual roles
By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff


IT WAS a full house for the May 3 League of Women Voters Leelanau County Age Friendly Committee presentation on the public-private partnership needed to address housing, healthcare, transportation and community support issues faced by Leelanau seniors. Committee member Pam Smithbell is pictured at the microphone, left. Other presenters were Phil Mikesell, Mary Tonneberger and Chris Palmer. IT WAS a full house for the May 3 League of Women Voters Leelanau County Age Friendly Committee presentation on the public-private partnership needed to address housing, healthcare, transportation and community support issues faced by Leelanau seniors. Committee member Pam Smithbell is pictured at the microphone, left. Other presenters were Phil Mikesell, Mary Tonneberger and Chris Palmer. Despite an attempt by some county commissioners to reconsider deep cuts to the county’s Senior Services programs earlier this week, letters were sent out yesterday to hundreds of senior citizens informing them that “asset testing” will now be required for certain services.

In addition, many of the Senior Services department programs including voucher programs for restaurant dining will be discontinued entirely, a contract for Registered Nurse services through Share Care of Leelanau will be terminated and the department’s finance director will be laid off.

At the regular monthly executive meeting of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday morning, an “action item” on the agenda called for a Senior Services “Budget Adjustment Update.” The item was on the agenda following a recommendation from the board’s Senior Services Advisory Committee that the full board “possibly allocate more funds to meet unmet needs” in the department.

The committee’s April 27 vote to bring the question to the full board was 2-1 with District No. 4 Commissioner Ty Wessell and District No. 5 Commissioner Patricia Soutas-Little, the county board’s only two Democrats, in favor. The chair of the Senior Services Advisory Committee also happens to be the chair of the County Board, District No. 3 Commissioner Will Bunek.

At this week’s County Board executive meeting, Bunek moved that the Senior Services “Budget Adjustment Update” be removed from the list of “action items” on the agenda and placed under “special reports” at the end of the meeting. An extended debate by county commissioners over an otherwise routine item on the agenda, “agenda additions or deletions,” ensued.

Ultimately, the board voted 4-3 in favor of Bunek’s motion to remove consideration of a Senior Services Budget Update off the agenda for action, and 3-4 against a motion by Wessell to put it back on the agenda in a modified form.

In both cases, District No. 1 Commissioner Tony Ansorge sided with Wessell and Soutas-Little.

When the issue came up again as an informational item at the end of the meeting, Wessell expressed frustration with Bunek for his failure to support his own committee’s recommendation.

Bunek noted that his roles as chair of the committee and chair of the board are two different roles, and he was exercising his judgment as board chair.

Bunek said the County Board had already decided on the Senior Services budget and had reduced the department’s projected $130,000 budget defi- cit by half when it allocated an additional $65,000 to the department through a drawdown of general fund reserves.

“We’d only create more uncertainty in this department and among seniors if we keep changing the budget,” Bunek said.

Currently, a “wait list” is being compiled for Leelanau County senior citizens seeking certain services from the department. In addition, those enrolled in three programs that anyone over the age of 60 was previously eligible to receive will now be required to show that they are financially needy.

“Asset testing” will now be applied to the department’s “personal care,” “respite care,” and “medication management” programs. A “homemaking” program had previously required asset testing. A new scale will be used to assess financial need, however, increasing a scale from five levels to seven levels.

“The gross income threshold for one in a household is $29,700 and for two in a household the gross income threshold is $40,050 and the asset threshold other than home/auto is $100,000,” according to a letter mailed out to seniors enrolled in the programs this week.

County administrator Chet Janik said an updated budget produced by the Senior Services staff and reviewed by the Senior Services Advisory Committee late last month remains a “living document that may change from month to month.”

He said there were some misperceptions about the length of wait lists for certain Senior Service programs; and rumors of a “two-year wait” are an exaggeration. In addition, a separatelyfunded Meals on Wheels program will continue. An “unmet needs” program that provides one-time payments for certain senior citizens has always been asset-tested, he added, although there will now be a waiting list.

Senior Services department head April Missias was unable to attend this week’s County Board meeting. Earlier, she pointed out that predicting the number of seniors requesting services has been problematic, and the need for services has been growing.

Requests for “in-home” services unexpectedly jumped 27 percent in the past year, from 148 in 2015 to 188 in 2016. The percentage of people eligible for Senior Services programs is higher in Leelanau County than anywhere in the region, with some 39 percent of Leelanau County residents age 60 or older.

In 2014, Leelanau County voters renewed a 0.275-mill property tax levy to support Senior Services for four years. No decisions have been made on a millage proposal for 2018.

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