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Friday, May 6, 2016

Batesville agency to take over Fulton County senior citizen programs

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Area seniors enjoy lunch, games and conversation at the Salem Senior Center. Photo by Richard Irby [Order this photo]
Some Fulton County senior citizens are worried about rumors their senior citizen centers may close.

Employees at the centers in Salem, Viola and Mammoth Spring are worried about losing their jobs.

The concern is coming from word the Fulton County Council on Aging is losing the right to operate local senior centers and programs.

Marilyn Thomas (top), the Kitchen Manager of the Salem Senior Center, and her assistant, Sheila Garrett, are among 11 employees of the Fulton County Council on Aging who will lose their jobs on June 30. The White River Area Agency on Aging is taking over management of Fulton County senior programs. Employees have the option of applying to WRAAA, to seek being rehired. Photo by Richard Irby [Order this photo]
In March, the council submitted a proposal for a contract to operate Fulton County senior programs for a new four year cycle -- just as it has done for more than 30 years.

An April 17 letter from the White River Area Agency on Aging informed the council, "Approval (of the contract) was not recommended to the WRAAA Board of Directors. The current contract with Fulton County Council on Aging will end on June 30, 2012 and will not be renewed."

The WRAAA is the administrator which oversees federal funds for senior programs in a 10-county area, including Fulton County. It hires providers in each community, and monitors them to insure that federal and state money is used for meals and programs promised in provider contracts.

"I put as much effort into this contract proposal as all the rest," said Connie Godwin, who has coordinated Fulton County Senior Programs for almost 30 years. "I guess you would say I am shocked. It's kind of disturbing to just get this short letter. After all these years of service, we didn't even get an explanation of what the problem is."

When Godwin asked for an explanation from Darlene Fowler, the Senior Centers Coordinator for the WRAAA, she was only told the decision to terminate the contract could be appealed.

"We decided not to appeal. It appears their mind is made up," Godwin said.

"I am just worried about our employees," said In-service Coordinator Betty Teague. "They don't get paid much but this is their livelihood, and they have been very good, dedicated employees."

"Senior citizens centers in Fulton County are not closing," Ed Haas, the CEO of the White River Area Agency on Aging told The News. "We are in the process of contacting current clients and employees to let them know we will be taking over Fulton County operations on July 1 (the start of the new fiscal year)."

According to Haas, Godwin and the Fulton County Council on Aging have been aware that recent performance audits were critical of the local operation.

"Auditors have pointed out a lack of participation by the board and irregular board meetings," Haas said. "The biggest problem is, the council needs to be involving the community and doing tremendous fundraising. Fulton County is not doing what it needs to do to improve programs and serve more seniors. It is not addressing future needs."

Godwin said it is true that each year, program audits list not having enough employees or money to operate as problem areas to work on. According to Godwin, local senior centers hold frequent fundraisers, but make just enough to stay current with payroll and bills -- they never seem to get ahead. The proposed 2012-2013 budget, which was rejected by WRAAA, included raising at least $10,000 through fundraising in the community.

"For the last few years, we've been struggling," Godwin said. "This is a poor county and money is hard to come by but, somehow, we've made it. We've served our seniors without cutting services."

Godwin said the council has sometimes had to cover for WRAAA financial issues. For example, an unexpected e-mail from Fowler in April of 2011 informed Godwin that the WRAAA was "out of funds for the fiscal year for older workers." The local council, which employed three people whose salaries were paid through the Experience Works program, had to find a way to cover the salaries, even though its funding was also at low ebb as the fiscal year neared an end.

If WRAAA was displeased at the operation of Fulton County centers, Godwin said she was not aware of it. The council was never put on notice it was in danger of losing its contract to manage senior programs, and WRAAA officials never counseled it in how to improve.

According to Haas, WRAAA has the right to take over operations of a county's senior citizen programs, if it decides there is not a viable proposal or organization to provide services.

So, the agency intends to negotiate an agreement with the county to continue to operate out of the established Salem, Viola and Mammoth Spring centers. The 11 employees who were hired by the Fulton County Council to work at local centers will lose their jobs on June 30, but will be invited to apply to be re-hired by the WRAAA. On July 1, center meals and activities and home delivered meals will continue as usual -- but with new management.

"I hope so, if they allow me to," is how Salem Senior Center Kitchen Coordinator Marilyn Thomas replied, when asked if she hopes to keep her job. "This is my only income, and I love to cook for the people who come here. I have a great love of seniors -- I have learned incredible things from their experience."

Thomas, who peeled 25 pounds of potatoes for the "Cheese Topped Potatoes," she whipped up for the May 3 meal, has served up her "home cooking" for six years, receiving only one small raise. She has cooked for free at many fundraisers, to help keep the center going.

"I intend to hire someone local to manage the (Fulton County) program," Haas said. "We will improve this (Fulton County) program in the first year, by rallying the community and getting people involved."

Within two years, the WRAAA hopes another private group will come forward and take over Fulton County senior citizen programs.

This year, the WRAAA asked the Fulton County Hospital to consider bidding on the contract for local senior programs. The hospital's board of governors declined, after deciding it had enough on its plate without taking on more responsibility.

According to Haas, federal and state funds provide about 50% of the money necessary to operate senior programs in the 10-county area.

"Federal and state funds are not increasing but, in many counties, local dollars (donations) are meeting the challenge of keeping programs going and helping serve even more seniors," Haas said. "I am not getting after anybody. I just believe that Fulton County (senior) programs can be a whole lot better."

"All I can say is, we have continued to operate three senior centers, five days a week, despite constantly being low on money -- while other counties have had to cut services," Godwin said. "If they (WRAAA) think Fulton County is not what it should be, maybe it is time for others to come in and see what they can do. I wish them luck for people's sake -- for the sake of the clients we serve."

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