The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 29, 2012

COMMISSIONERS CORNER | Closing senior center won’t diminish service

For The Tribune-Democrat

JOHNSTOWN — If someone were to ask, “Would you like a reduced program or no program?” we believe that answer would be “give us a reduced program.”

The good news is that we don’t have to stop any of the senior services at this time. The not-so-good news is that in order to meet budget constraints and continue to provide services, we were forced into closing one of the county’s nine senior centers.

How did this come about and why did it come about now? We asked the Area Agency on Aging and a consultant to assist us with looking at this problem when we became aware of budget issues at the beginning of this year. Their findings were very similar.

First, we emphasize that ignoring a problem does not represent good management or leadership – it is just ignoring a problem. Some people would ask us to ignore a budget problem until it becomes so large that we would be forced to close the program completely. What would that say about “taking care of our seniors?” Some people would like you to believe that by closing one center, we are “hurting” our seniors, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, we are protecting the program as a whole and have not taken away a single service that we are currently providing to our seniors.

We are asking only that one of the smallest groups of seniors in the county now share services with another group of seniors. Nothing more, nothing less. And we hope to not have to cut any services as we face further fiscal challenges.

Let’s look at the facts we’re facing:

• Senior centers represent the single, largest expense category in the Cambria County Area Agency on Aging budget.

• Area Agencies on Aging no longer have funding streams to sustain social services at pre-2012 levels.

• There will be a deficit budget of more than $900,000 for Cambria County Area Agency on Aging in the next three years (2013: $277,789 deficit; 2014: $269,506 deficit; 2015: $353,286 deficit).

• Cost containment strategies already implemented by the county Aging Agency include reducing the number of delivery days for home-delivered meals and asking care managers to scrutinize criteria and caseloads for consumer eligibility (but the number of meals has not been reduced).

• Requests to the Aging Agency’s protective services unit to provide temporary shelter for older adults in need have quadrupled.

• Funding constraints are forcing Aging Agencies across the state to close or consolidate senior centers.

For example, Northumberland County commissioners just voted to close three senior centers. Blair Senior

Services reduced its number of centers from nine to six and is considering additional closings. Twenty senior

centers in Allegheny County have

been shuttered over the years for a variety of reasons.

• Maintaining nine centers in Cambria County is costing between $850,000 and $1 million annually.

• Nanty Glo has the lowest participation in meals of all nine centers.

• Nanty Glo has the highest rental rate, with the exception of the Johns­town center. (Johnstown has the highest participation rate of all centers.)

• Nanty Glo center is less than eight miles away from two other senior centers: Ebensburg (7.6 miles) and Jackson Township (5.5 miles).  CamTran is working out a schedule for free transportation to either center.

Balancing the budget has become a formidable task for all state and local governments. The Pennsylvania Department of Aging and compassionate social service criteria demand that priorities be established and scarce resources be effectively allocated to benefit the neediest, the most vulnerable and economically deprived older adults.

Although budget constraints may at some time require that waiting lists be initiated for services such as adult day care, home-delivered meals and personal care, we do not have to do that now if we manage our budget more responsibly by containing the skyrocketing costs of maintaining nine senior centers.

The last thing that we, as commissioners and management of the AAA services, want to do is close centers and change habit patterns of our seniors. However, in the interest of saving a very important program, we regretfully are forced into closing the Nanty Glo Senior Center.

We stress that we are not cutting any services that AAA now provides and would hope that people will use the free transportation to meet new friends, receive the same great care and come to respect surrounding centers and participants as much as they have over the years in Nanty Glo.

Note: Democratic minority Commissioner Thomas Chernisky voted against closing the Nanty Glo center, saying he supports cost reduction efforts at all of the centers.

The Cambria County Board of Commissioners includes Doug Lengenfelder, Mark Wissinger and Chernisky. This column is a monthly update on the work of county government.

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