For 17 years, Helen Steiner has been going to the Newton Area Senior Center, not only for social interaction but as a volunteer.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 19 edition of the Kansan.For 17 years, Helen Steiner has been going to the Newton Area Senior Center, not only for social interaction but as a volunteer. “If you are people oriented, this is where you see people,” Steiner said. “If I didn’t have this, I’d be in a nursing home.”During that time, she’s learned to use a computer and helped track the finances of the center. She wonders why there hasn’t been more help from the city of Newton in the area of funding for the center. “I wonder what the barrier is between us and them,” Steiner said. Mayor Jim Nikkel said he believes that barrier she talks about is a soft one, built when the senior center moved out of the city-owned Newton Activity Center, about 20 years ago. “At that time, it seems like the city decided they were not going to fund anything extra for them,” Nikkel said. “That seems to be handed down. That’s not a policy, only what I believe happened.”It’s not that there’s been no help. In 2003, the city gave the center $17,000 to help put a new roof on the building on East Sixth Street. But aside from that, there’s been nothing, Director Debi Rodgers said. “Nothing regular,” Rodgers said, “but we haven’t always asked. We would like to be self-sufficient, and we try hard with fund raising.”She approached the council requesting $10,000 for the 2009 budget year; however, that request was denied. “It is not that we have no concern, but it has been a point that we have not elected to do extra funding,” Nikkel said. “When they are really in need of maintenance on the facility, we have tried to be cooperative.”Currently the tax dollars, which end up in the Senior Center budget, come from Harvey County. The county funds make up 29 percent of the center’s $73,000 budget. Sixty percent comes from fund-raisers, building rentals, inserting newspapers for the Kansan, gift shop revenue and donations. The remaining 11 percent of the budget comes from the United Way. Rodgers said the more than $70,000 budget the last two years has not been enough, and the center is in danger. “We’ve been spending about $5,000 more than our budget the last two years,” Rodgers said. “Costs are going up, and we have used up our funds for capital expenses. We’re constantly having problems with air conditioning, heating or a boiler. ... We can only operate for about two more years on what we have.”That’s why she turned to the city, looking for funds, she said. “We’re not eligible for state or federal funds,” Rodgers said. “We’ve checked. Our only support is local.”There is a precedent, in Harvey County, for cities offering help of some form to senior centers. In some cities, the senior centers get help from the city. Halstead and Burrton each waive utility fees for their senior centers. In Hesston, the city donates $2,000 to the senior center in exchange for volunteer crossing guards. The city also gives the senior center grant funds, which the senior center must write grant applications for each year, from the Hesston Community Service Grant. “That is a competitive grant open to any 501c3 organization in the city,” Hesston City Manager John Carder said. “But the senior center has gotten money from that every year since its inception.”In Sedgwick, the city owns the building the senior center is in, leasing on a five-year lease for $1 per year. The city takes care of building maintenance like new siding or air-conditioning systems. The senior center takes care of the interior — new chairs, carpets, etc.. Sedgwick City Manager Jackie Reimer said that agreement will continue if the city is able to fund the construction of a new building . The first step in a new building will be a vote Dec. 16 for a USDA loan. “We don’t float an annual mill levy and hand them cash,” Reimer said. “Between the county mill levy and fund-raising, they actually do a nice job of being self-sufficient.”The county levied more than $175,000 for senior services in the 2009 budget, with more than $87,000 heading out to senior centers and service providers in the county. “I don’t think it is healthy for senior centers to be only funded by the county,” said county director of aging Rich Hanley. Hanley said every senior center in the county gets funds from the county mill levy. Each also has to find other funding sources as well. “They are eligible to write grants and apply for other funds,” Hanley said. “I know Hesston gets other funds, and I know Newton has applied for other funds. They have received money from Greyhound Charities in the past, but that is no longer available.”Rodgers said the United Way and county funds can and are used for operational expenses. Those operational expenses are held down through the use of volunteers. Aside from Rodgers, the senior center has no paid staff. “They do their best to provide services to people over 60,” Hanley said. “It’s not easy. There is some paid staff, but for the most part, it’s all volunteer labor.”Despite using mostly volunteers, the Newton center is struggling to get ahead, or to offer any new programs to the more than 1,000 people who come through the doors each year. “In the nine years I’ve been here, we can’t get ahead,” Rodgers said. “We can’t make improvements here. In order to try to make improvements, we have to dip into our reserves.”There is a possibility the senior center could be in line for a facility upgrade. Nikkel said the city has talked with the senior center about being included in new recreational facilities.“The town may be looking at a transition when it comes to a recreation facility, and we need to have an open mind to the inclusiveness of seniors as part of that discussion,” Nikkel said.How that will look has yet to be determined. “Part of the reason we left the NRC was we had to take down (activities) between meetings,” Steiner said. “We need a space that is ours.”That discussion doesn’t solve the center’s pressing problem — this year’s budget. The center has brought in $53,139 in 2008 — well short of the $70,000 budgeted. “Our donations are way down,” Rodgers said. “The cost of living has gone up, and the people who support us need their money to live on.”