By Ken Bustin
Twenty-eight people assembled at the North Senior Center last Wednesday to listen and discuss as officials outlined tentative plans to close the Center this fall.
Janice Lantz, executive director of Pendleton Senior and Family Services, explained to the group that the Center was operating at a loss, and that this condition could not continue indefinitely. She said that officials had set September 30th as the deadline for finding solutions and making a final decision. She was joined by Director of the Upper Potomac Agency on Aging, Scott Gossard, as they outlined the issues and asked those in attendance to suggest possible solutions.
Lantz said that a primary cause of their consideration of closure was that the number of meals being provided had declined significantly in the past couple of years, distributing a chart which showed that, in the first quarter of fiscal year 2022 – October through December of 2021 – the number of meals served per month had declined to between 110 and 122, compared to a range of 270 and 448 for fiscal year 2020, creating a loss of $8.00 per meal, or $2,818.40 for the quarter. This level of loss, she said, was unsustainable, and something had to be done.
She told the audience that, since the meals were reimbursed to the agency, a greater number would mean more revenue and reduce the problem. In fact, however, the reimbursement received is only for actual costs, so while the operating costs associated with providing the service would be spread out over a greater number of meals and reduce the loss per meal, the deficit would actually be greater. In fiscal year 2020, for example, although the loss per meal was only $3.77 instead of $8.00, the total loss was $9,853.58.
Lantz said that every cost-saving measure they could think of had been implemented, and they believed there was little, if anything which could be cut and not many other options available.
But some of the citizens present disagreed with that assessment.
Several felt that the falling numbers of meals being served was responsive to officials having decided to eliminate a cook on the premises and instead preparing meals in Franklin and transporting them to North Fork. The food didn’t travel well, they said, and the quality of the meals had declined sharply under the new arrangement.
“Any of you who have had a grilled cheese sandwich made in Franklin and transported over the mountain know what we are talking about,” declared one lady firmly.
They also doubted, they said, that the cost of packaging and transporting the food was less than the cost of a cook for the hours involved, and with the rapid increases in the price of gasoline, would likely only get worse.
If another cook could be hired for the North Fork location, they believed that patronage would be very likely to increase again. Besides the meals, the Center provided an important service as a place where seniors could congregate and socialize.
COVID had also negatively impacted turnout, many felt, especially senior citizens, as people were being advised to minimize personal contact.
But Lantz countered that the Center had operated in the red every year, including before the move to preparing meals in Franklin and transporting them. And, she said, the cost of transporting the meals from Franklin was significantly less than paying the wages of a cook from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. She also said the agency was having difficulty finding cooks.
She outlined other expenses which contributed to the loss. For example, the bill for propane since the beginning of the year, she said, had been about $1,300.
Some in the group were unconvinced, however, that officials were always spending funds wisely. They cited as an example of the fact that two volunteers had offered to mow the lawn at the Center for a $5 contribution toward their gas each time, but that instead officials had put the job out to bid and the cost had ended up being $50 per time – 10 times as much.
Lantz suggested that citizens contact their legislators. She emphasized the importance of them hearing from multiple people – and repeatedly.
“If the representatives hear from one person,” she opined, “it’s not the same as hearing from 10.”
One woman in the audience suggested contacting businesses in the community, to ask for donations and sponsorships. “Tell me what needs to be said and I’ll make the calls,” she declared. Lantz said that businesses had already been contacted by means of flyers, but several people felt that this was not as effective as personal calls.
Another complaint from some of those in attendance was that people were coming to the Center expecting to have a meal, and were instead finding a locked door.
One man opined that greater effort should be made to encourage younger people to come to the Center, noting that as older people died off, the numbers would decline further.
Pendleton County was not the only place considering closing a satellite center, Gossard reminded the audience. The problem was widespread.
Some members of the audience were annoyed because they felt that officials hadn’t reached out to community members to ask for help. They had held fundraising events in the past, they said, and had done very well. One of the last ones had raised $3,500, a significant portion of the annual shortfall, which officials estimated at about $12,000 annually. Some of the residents felt that undertaking such efforts again might produce similar results.
Lantz said they welcomed any suggestions or efforts that would help. “It’s just basically going to boil down to the numbers,” she concluded.
In answer to whether or not a fundraiser could designate its proceeds to assist just the North Fork Senior Center instead of the overall agency, Lantz and Gossard were equivocal. “Maybe,” they replied.
The meeting adjourned without a clear conclusion. Some of those in attendance left vowing to find ways to save the Center, with Lantz having urged them to “…keep your minds open to new things.”