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Seniors protest center plan

A plan to radically reorganize and monetize the Ashland Senior Center was met with many tales of suffering, poverty and loneliness among elders, followed by a unanimous roar of protest when it became clear a Parks and Recreation subcommittee was going to vote for it anyway at a special meeting Tuesday.

A memo from Ashland Parks & Recreation Director Michael Black, only received Monday by most in the audience of 50, calls for the senior center to engage in a vigorous regime of “cost recovery” of $75,000 over the next two years.

Black concluded "The senior program could offer much more … than it currently does. ... (O)ur senior program is staffed and funded comfortably; the Ashland Senior Center's cost recovery, however, is almost non-existent.

"... In order for (it) to continue to function, even at its current level, it will need to start earning revenue. … If we fail at this endeavor, it is possible we will not be able to afford the program and any service we currently offer, and those that we have the potential to offer could be lost.”

The report cites senior programs in McMinnville (population about 35,000), Bend (91,000) and Willamalane (a park and recreation district serving 60,000 people with borders overlapping much of Springfield), and says Ashland's senior program staffing, with just under two full-time staffers, is comparable to Willamalane, the highest of the three, when measuring staff per population.

The cities and special district cited as comparables have expenses similar to Ashland's, the report says, but the others produce "significant revenue," about $5,400 per 1,000 residents, while Ashland generates about $90 per 1,000 residents. The comparable communities offer more senior services, the report says, including "overnight trips, cafe type lunches with third party catering, passes for programming, bingo and many other activities."

The report calls for reducing operations and staffing at the senior center "to a bare minimum for at least three months" to save money and allow time to reorganize the senior program and move "major functions" to The Grove, with a goal of creating a "multi-generational center, keeping scheduled classes and Food and Friends program at the current Senior Center."

Seniors at the meeting widely understood that Parks & Recreation planned to shutter the senior center, but Black said “I don’t recommend closure. That is false as part of my recommendations.”

Black’s recommendations include:

—More senior programs, with “dominant factor” that they make money;

—Reduce activities and staff “to a bare minimum” for at least a quarter, affecting only drop-ins and office hours;

—Keep Food & Friends, which is done by the Rogue Valley Council of Governments;

—Keep scheduled recreation programs for now;

—Keep low-income energy assistance for help if seniors have utility disconnect notices;

—Every program should have some level of cost recovery;

—Charge the Rogue Valley Council of Governments for using the center to bring in meals from Food & Friends; and

—Move the senior program to The Grove (next to the police station), making it a “multi-generational” center, but keeping meals at the present center.

The senior center could increase revenues, he said, by getting grants, charging membership fees from seniors, doing fundraisers, partnering with other nonprofits, creating new recreation for “underserved populations” and creating money-making programs.

Longtime social activist Rich Rohde told the board, “I have severe concerns about the quality of this report. It can’t go forward. Goal four is that cost-recovery is the most important concern. You must form a much broader strategy that involves more people.”

Senior Center volunteer Susanne Severeid said it’s impossible to itemize in a budget what stands to be lost — and the staff, some going back decades in its 43-year history, know the names of everyone, their children and late spouses.

“When has Michael Black set foot in the center and sat down and spent time with the people?” said Severeid. “We don’t charge for the parks and bike trails. There’s a social contract that must be honored.”

As they sat, audience members read the memo, dated Aug. 7, and universally attacked it. Many complained they were given only 90 seconds each to comment.

Marilyn Nelson Clark, 93, demanded to know Black’s age. He demurred for a minute, finally saying 45. She responded, “You’ve got a long time to learn about this.”

Former Senior Center Manager Sharon Laws, who led it for 17 years, said, “It’s so important that we don’t lose track of this. The human element must be considered. We can be a little tightwad, but we must take care of others. This center has done so well over 43 years and is supported by the community. It has a high social service element.”

Pointing to the last recommendation on Black’s list, a survey of all citizens covering all aspects of the senior program, Michael Hersh said that should be number one and “senior services should not have to raise a penny.” The plan should be decided by the City Council, he added, not Parks & Recreation.

Many made the point by reciting the atmosphere of loneliness and fear experienced by themselves or others who are “invisible” elders in the community.

“This (at Senior Center) is my family and I look forward to it more than anything in my life over the last 30 years,” said Bert Harris. “I’ve never been able to afford living in Ashland, but I do it by frugality. I have 96 square feet to live in and I don’t pay to visit my family.”

Volunteer Sue Wilson said, “You see how much this means to people. This is late notice with a small input time. It’s very stressful to the community. You are looking at the glass half empty and overlook the impact of it … To lose the intellectual capital and experience for some temporary savings is not wise. Moving it to The Grove would be a disconnect … You should show more respect.”

Peggy DuVall said, though she had no children, she didn’t mind paying taxes for schools over 33 years and “now it’s my turn. There’s not a whole lot in Ashland for seniors and you want us to pay again — for companionship in old age? You have no business shuffling us off and making us pay. You have a hearing but you’ve already made up your minds to rush this through. This meeting is pointless.”

David Hill said, “Your recommendations are drastic. You shift resources from the survival of those in need to the fun and games of those not in need.”

Mort Perle asked, “If you need to collect revenue from each program, why are seniors the only target? Why not admission to Lithia Park and the tennis courts?”

Willow Morningstar, 74, said, “I live in terror every day. I look for work to survive in this community. I go to sleep in terror and wake up in terror. I feel so vulnerable and lonely. What I hear in this meeting today is disrespect for the elderly population.”

John Hawksley, 74, said, “You need to get more community involvement and understand what our needs are. It’s clear you have not done that. We’ve seen this bureaucracy brush it over with a lot of facts. You need to start over.”

Longtime Senior Center Manager Chris Dodson, interviewed Monday, said, “I was very surprised (by Black’s memo). He thinks it could be run more efficiently. We've run a very successful program for 43 years now. It’s a sweet program.”

In his memo, Black faulted Dodson, saying that, in response to committee requests for information on the center's functions and value to the community, her "presentations were brief and provided little substantive basis for evaluating the program’s reach, effectiveness or operational efficiency. She gave only partial answers to some questions and she appeared to regard the Subcommittee’s evaluation of the current program’s effectiveness as invasive.”

Black also wrote that Dodson and her unofficial advisory board sought to bypass parks commissioners and get the program transferred to the city.

In remarks to the audience, Black said a performance audit was done on his department two years ago and the proposed actions are an opportunity to be creative and make it a financial success.

An audience member shouted, “How much did the study cost?” When told $40,000, the audience burst into a loud “booo!” with Hersh barking, “We could have done it for free!”

Most of the audience chanted, “Shame, shame” at the end of the meeting.

Parks & Recreation Commissioner Mike Gardiner told the audience the senior program needs full integration with the city recreation department. The report says moving the senior program into the recreation division will allow creation of more "programming for more of the 55+ population and for achieving the cost recovery goals." He said he’d made up his mind before the hearing to vote yes on it. Fellow Commissioner Jim Lewis, the only other member of the subcommittee, also voted yes.

The subcommitte's recommendation goes to a special meeting of the full Parks & Recreation Commission at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the City Council Chambers.

—John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.