If approved next month by county commissioners, funding for Lewis County’s five senior centers will dry up, eliminating county funding for both nutrition and recreation programs.
The more than $376,000 in cuts could be approved at the Dec. 5 Board of Lewis County Commissioners meeting along with the 2017 budget, which is expected to rely in part on reserves to balance the overall document. Commissioners Edna Fund and Gary Stamper said due to declining revenues and a desire to reduce reliance on general fund reserves, they looked for non-mandated programs to cut or eliminate.
One of those was running five senior centers across the county, including a partnership with the Lewis-Mason-Thurston Area Agency on Aging, which uses federal funds to partner with municipalities to provide meals for seniors.
County Public Health and Social Services Director Danette York said the agency has a mandate to either provide meals or vouchers in its service area. York said the agency would likely being seeking another partner in the county to provide meals before the June 30, 2017, county funding cutoff date.
“The best case scenario is to try to transfer this out from under the county” and into the private sector, York said.
The Area Agency on Aging splits the cost of providing two meals a week in the rural county and five meals a week in the Twin Cities with the county. But enrichment programs, such as offering college courses or leisure activities, will be left completely unfunded.
Fund said she hopes the communities served by the centers step up and keep the centers operational. The centers are located in Morton, Winlock, Packwood, Toledo and Chehalis.
“I’m hopeful that they will have found a way, with the creative ways that we are suggesting, that they won’t miss a beat,” she said.
The county could transfer the buildings to nonprofits or cities for inexpensive leases or purchases, with the exception of the Toledo building, which would go back to the city, and the Packwood facility, which the Packwood Improvement Club would take control of.
“It’s not that we’re trying to close them down and leave them high and dry, it’s that we’re trying to find a transition into the community,” York said.
Jan Kramer is the president of the Winlock Advisory Board for the Olequa Center. She said she thinks the county will provide as much support as it can, but worries what will happen when county dollars disappear.
“I think my biggest concern is that the community will chip in and help us,” she said.
The commissioners also cited advice from the county prosecutor’s office, which said the enrichment program is a gift of public funds and illegal under state law.
However, Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said a state statute allowed it, but felt the constitution is more solid legal ground to base county policy on.
“They need to somehow come into compliance with the state constitution,” he said.
Meyer said the county can only use those funds to assist defined poor and infirm residents, with others having to pay at least a minimal charge, although he said the charge would not have to cover the full cost of the services provided.
The county has not quantified “poor” or “infirm,” which would bring them into compliance with the state constitution, even though their current program is allowed under state statute.
Meyer also said he couldn’t think of an instance where a legal challenge has been mounted over the discrepancy between the state statute and constitution.
Meyer also said commissioners have known about this discrepancy since before 2011 when he was elected.
The county will be arranging meetings at the five senior centers in Chehalis, Winlock, Toledo, Packwood and Morton and publishing the dates on their website.
The final public hearing on the 2017 budget will be held on Dec. 5 at 10 a.m. in the commissioners hearing room at the Lewis County Courthouse in Chehalis.