Shucking off raincoats and shaking rain off their umbrellas as they entered, about 50 people gathered Friday afternoon at the Ann Arbor Senior Center to get an update from city staff on the center’s fate, and to give feedback on ways to keep it open.
The meeting was the first of two scheduled by a city task force convened to address a budget crunch that had prompted city staff to recommend closing the center. The next public meeting is set for Tuesday, Oct. 27 from 6:30-8:30 p.m., also at the Burns Park facility, 1320 Baldwin Ave.
Closing the center seems a less certain scenario now, based on comments from staff and task force members. The focus is on finding ways to increase revenues, Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation services manager, told the group.
“The fact that so many people came out today shows how important the senior center is,” Smith said.
Background: Budget Cuts, Task Force
At an April 13, 2009 council working session, city administrator Roger Fraser introduced a recommended budget for fiscal year 2010 and a projected budget for fiscal 2011. Faced with declining revenues from property taxes and increased expenses for items like the city’s pension contributions, Fraser proposed a number of cuts to balance the budget. Among them was a plan to close the senior center in 2011, saving the city an estimated $141,000 annually.
Outcry was immediate, with supporters rallying for the center as well as for Mack Pool, which Fraser also proposed closing or turning over to the Ann Arbor Public Schools. Seniors in particular protested, speaking during public comment portions of an April 14 town hall meeting and an April 21 meeting of the city’s Park Advisory Commission, as well as at several city council meetings.
In May, city council authorized formation of a senior center task force to explore other options, then appointed task force members in July. [The July resolution refers incorrectly to a March 18 formation of the task force.] Current task force members are:
- Margie Teall, city councilmember (task force chair)
- Christopher Taylor, city councilmember
- Julie Grand, Park Advisory Commission member
- Kristen Wilson, Area Agency on Aging 1-B
- Virginia Boyce, Blueprint for Aging
- Linda Levy, Burns Park neighbor
- Luz Infanta, Ann Arbor citizen and at-large senior center patron
- Bob Snyder, at-large senior center patron.
Keeping the Senior Center Open: Some Options
Jeff Straw, the city’s deputy parks and recreation manager, gave a presentation on Friday identifying some challenges and opportunities that the task force has identified so far.
The center serves about 500 people annually, he said. [Some people later disputed that number, saying that many people come to the center but don't sign in.] Of those 500 people, 77% live in Ann Arbor and 86% are 70 years old or older, Straw said.
One of the challenges is to figure out how to provide services for a range of ages and interests, he said.
Other issues include:
- the layout of the building – a remodeled horse barn from the old Ann Arbor fairgrounds – isn’t conducive to holding multiple functions at the same time;
- the building’s lighting and decor are outdated;
- there’s no fitness equipment;
- the kitchen isn’t set up for holding cooking classes or demonstrations;
- the center doesn’t serve Baby Boomers well;
- parking is limited, and the center isn’t located directly on a bus line. The bus stop at Packard is about four blocks away.
In thinking about programming and expense reduction, Straw outlined several options that have been discussed by the task force. They include: 1) expanding the trip program, 2) offering more workshops and seminars, including foreign language classes, 3) providing more health and fitness programs, 4) recruiting more volunteers, and 5) reducing the hours of operation at the center, which is now open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from 1-4 p.m.
Finally, Straw reported that some of the ideas to generate more revenue include: 1) better marketing and branding of the center’s programs and services, 2) instituting a membership fee, 3) renting out the facility to other groups, 4) fundraising, 5) getting sponsorships from businesses or institutions, and 6) using the $100,000 bequest from James Flinn Jr., which is earmarked for the center.
The task force focused on new ways to generate revenue, Smith told the group on Friday. Expenses for the center for fiscal year 2010, which began July 1, 2009, are expected to reach nearly $190,000 – but the center will take in only $38,000 in revenue. That leaves a roughly $152,000 shortfall that has to be covered by the city.
There was some skepticism about the city’s intent. One person who attended Friday’s meeting stood up and gave an emotional plea to keep the center open, saying that it wasn’t right to just “slough off” seniors to other locations, where similar activities might be held. Seniors won’t go elsewhere, she said – they’ll just stay at home, alone and isolated. Her remarks were met with a round of applause.
Straw and Smith both said the city staff recognized that the center was more than just a location for programs and services – it’s a community. “We are all looking for a solution to keep this senior center open,” Smith said.
Feedback from Friday’s Meeting
For a portion of Friday’s meeting, people who attended were divided into three smaller groups and asked to give staff and task force members ideas and feedback about the center’s future. The same format will be used during next Tuesday’s meeting as well.
Based on The Chronicle’s observations from those small-group sessions, as well as a summary provided at the end of the meeting by members from each group, here are some of the ideas floated by participants.
There was considerable overlap with suggestions mentioned by staff earlier in the meeting (and reported above) – we won’t include those in this list:
- Change the center’s name – some people aren’t interested in going to a place that’s seems designated just for seniors.
- Recruit volunteers who can staff the center during off hours, so that it can remain open for more events and activities.
- Promote the center by giving presentations at places where seniors gather or live, like Lurie Terrace on West Huron.
- Start a fundraising campaign, and find ways to recognize those who donate. Al Gallup, who’s been on the center’s board, pointed out that there’s nothing to indicate who donated the $100,000 to the center – referring to the bequest by James Flinn Jr.
- Organize more outings to events at the University of Michigan and other venues.
- Find more groups who need a place to meet regularly and would be willing to pay for it, like book clubs or dance groups.
- Charge for programs that are currently free. Smith noted that 60% of the programs at the center are offered at no charge.
- Institute a membership fee, but make it a sliding scale so that people with limited resources can still join.
- Find a way to increase parking.
- Start a senior singles club.
- Open the center to events for younger people. (One man wondered why they were talking about getting younger people involved when they couldn’t even get enough older people to come to the center. Someone else responded, “Because younger people stay around longer!”)
- Use the $100,000 bequest to help the center get through this financial rough spot, while working to increase revenues in the longer-term.
- Promote the center by getting the local newspaper to write a regular feature about seniors who use it.
- Ask city council about floating a bond or putting a millage on the ballot to support the center.
Task Force Recommendations: Timeline
At Friday’s meeting, Colin Smith – the city’s parks and recreation services manager – laid out the time line for giving recommendations to city council about the future of the senior center.
After gathering feedback at the Friday meeting as well as the one on Tuesday, Oct. 27, the task force will meet and come up with a list of recommendations. They’ll hold another public meeting at the senior center in November (no date has been set yet) to share that report.
Then the task force will present its recommendations to the city’s Park Advisory Commission at the commission’s Jan. 19, 2010 meeting. [PAC is involved because senior center funding is part of parks and recreation's $1.5 million budget.] PAC will discuss, possibly revise and make its own recommendations to city council. The city council is expected to consider those recommendations at its Feb. 15, 2010 meeting.
City staff prepares a budget that’s then shared with the council’s budget and labor committee, Smith said. Based on feedback from that committee, the budget is revised before being sent to the full council. The council typically votes on the budget in May.