Seniors Weigh In On Fate of Center

City task force looks for ways to keep senior center open
Christopher Taylor, a city councilmember representing Ward 3

Christopher Taylor, right, a city councilmember representing Ward 3, is serving on the senior center task force, and attended Friday's meeting. (Photo by the writer.)

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.
Linda Levy, left, is a Burns Park resident and member of the senior center task force.

Linda Levy, left, is a Burns Park resident and member of the senior center task force. (Photo by the writer.)

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.
Pam Simmons, in the blue shirt, is facility supervisor for the Ann Arbor Senior Center.

Pam Simmons, in the blue shirt, is facility supervisor for the Ann Arbor Senior Center. (Photo by the writer.)

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.

Margaret Creger, who uses the senior center, said the city needs to find a way to make the center more welcoming.

Margaret Creger, who uses the senior center, said the city needs to find a way to make it more welcoming. Some people come to Ann Arbor and complain that they're charged for coffee, she reported, while Pittsfield Township's senior center provides free coffee and cookies. (Photo by the writer.)

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.
Colin Smith, the city's parks & recreation manager

Colin Smith, the city's parks and recreation manager. (Photo by the writer.)

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.


  1. October 24, 2009 at 9:25 pm | permalink

    Hmmm, $141,000/500 = $282 subsidy per person.
    $141,000 ~ 1+ police officer or fireman able to save lives
    $141,000 ~ 1+ teacher to better educate future generations
    $141,000 = recreation for 500 seniors
    Seems to me that we have a question of values here.

  2. By Dorothy Saulsberry
    October 26, 2009 at 1:52 pm | permalink

    National publications designate Ann Arbor as one of the best cities for retirement. I think it is an embarrassement for the city of Ann Arbor not to be able to afford a Senior Center.

  3. October 26, 2009 at 2:54 pm | permalink

    I agree. I also think it is a shame that we will not have enough police, fireman or teachers.

  4. By Art Radcliffe
    October 26, 2009 at 9:08 pm | permalink

    Ann Arbor as a leading institution in many dimensions surely cannot simply terminate city pubic service to seniors.

    The need for a City service of this sort is increasing with the strained economy.

    The City is fortunate to have an outstanding University School of Social Work whose resources should should not be ignored in this situation.

    I typed “senior center policy” into Google and concepts & contacts abounded.

    To directly quit leaves little to build on.

  5. October 26, 2009 at 10:47 pm | permalink

    How about a positive idea on the subject. Why not ask the seniors to earn their subsidies by tutoring children. It might serve the interests of both parties–the kids and the seniors.

  6. By Margaret Creger
    October 26, 2009 at 10:51 pm | permalink

    This article is an excellent summary of the meeting.

    According to Colin Smith, the current actual direct cost of operating the Senior Center is $200,000 while the Center currently generates $50,000 in revenue. There was no guidance from the Task Force for “financially-responsible” operations. Is it necessary to generate an additional $150,000 annually? Or would $100,000 be enough? (Obviously, $50,000 is not enough)

    The current “subsidy” of $150,000 may seem large in proportion to the estimated users of the center. However, please remember that these users are mainly long time residents of Ann Arbor, long time tax payers in Ann Arbor, long time contributors to the community through volunteer work in our organizations and schools. Providing a modest home for their activities would seem only appropriate recognition for their many contributions over the years.

  7. October 27, 2009 at 9:06 am | permalink

    Like I said, its a question of values. Apparently you put more value on entertaining seniors than fire, police and teachers.

  8. By Margaret Creger
    October 27, 2009 at 11:04 am | permalink

    I may be wrong, but I believe you (Gary Salton) are presenting us with a false choice. If the Senior Center is closed, saving approximately $150,000 for the city, I believe that money will be used to avoid additional cuts in the Parks and Recreation budget. The Senior Center simply represents a convenient option – close one program completely – no impact on others.

    You also need to remember, Gary, that with good fortune, someday you will be in the same position of the seniors who use the center. You may call it “entertainment” but for some of the seniors who attend the center, it is a most important part of their lives, preventing isolation and loneliness that leads to depression and illness.

  9. By Vivienne Armentrout
    October 27, 2009 at 11:17 am | permalink

    I’m confused. How do teachers keep coming into the conversation? They are not part of the city budget.

    I’m not a user of the senior center but I see a long-term, disturbing strategy here. Choose programs that have a relatively small active user base, like Project Grow, Mack Pool, and the senior center. Close them down while piously talking about the good of the whole. Meanwhile, there is always plenty of money for big projects – like the sudden allocation to the Fuller Road Station.

    What this is doing is cutting out support of our diverse population and its varying needs while furthering the “big-picture thinking” that seems to be our fate.

    And by the way, I did vote for the schools millage (absentee).

  10. October 27, 2009 at 1:49 pm | permalink

    The point I was trying to make–perhaps poorly–is that we are all being taxed to entertain seniors. I think there are better uses for the money–you apparently do not. That is a legitimate difference of opinion.

    I really don’t care what “budget” the senior center is in. That’s just an accounting convention. Money is fungible. Any decent accountant can figure out how to move it to serve a more important city interests which I deem to be things like unemployment rates, fire, police and stuff like that.

  11. October 27, 2009 at 2:13 pm | permalink

    You are correct that teachers are not part of the city budget. But fire and police are. There is a trade-off there somewhere. And there is a common denominator–the tax pot. One party gets more, someone else gets less.

    I do think we disagree on the value of minority interests. You “piously” see minor programs serving few people as central to serving our “diverse population”. I think that things like the parking and transportation promised by the Fuller Road Station will also serve that “diverse population”. Diversity does not mean that there are no common interests.

    When money is tight it seems to me that being able to spread its benefits out to serve more people is prudent if not just plain common sense.

  12. By Vivienne Armentrout
    October 27, 2009 at 9:28 pm | permalink


    This is a legitimate debate about the way resources are allocated in our society. And yes, if we have a zero-sum game, the competition for pieces of the pie gets to be more intense.

    But there is also a sense of proportion. Millions for public buildings vs. thousands or tens of thousands for targeted programs. And there is not universal agreement about the general utility of those large projects.

    “When money is tight” we do indeed need more negotiation about who benefits. But we have not had the chance to examine that well. For example, it was clearly stated in the staff presentation that the Fuller Road Station is to serve commuters. Should we be supporting such broad goals in the millions while taxing our citizens for a diminished pool of services that are relatively modest in cost?

  13. By Dave Askins
    October 27, 2009 at 10:11 pm | permalink

    To the discussion of priorities, it might also be worth adding the city’s two golf courses, which also are in the parks and recreation world, along with the Senior Center. From the recent PAC report “PAC Gets Briefed on Rentals, Preservation“:

    For fiscal 2009, Leslie Golf Course had revenues of $780,537 and expenses of $904,103 – “so it’s moving in the right way,” Smith said. In 2008, revenues were $626,130 but expenses were lower too, at $737,752. Commissioner Julie Grand explained that expenses were higher in 2009 because of implementing recommendations made by a golf course task force appointed to find ways to make the courses self-supporting. Those recommendations included bumping up staffing levels, which added to administrative costs.

  14. October 27, 2009 at 10:47 pm | permalink

    Vivienne–I guess we agree on the value of discussion, evaluation and negotiation. If we take everything out we won’t have much of a city. But if we try to fund everything, we won’t have much of a city. Nasty problem.

    Dave–Thanks for the input. It looks like we are subsidizing the golfers as well as the seniors. Personally, if I had to choose between them, I’d subsidize the seniors. However, I’d rather not subsidize either.

  15. By Steve Crawford
    October 28, 2009 at 12:17 pm | permalink

    I would like to further dig into the idea of the need for such a ‘recreational’ social setting for the seniors. From what I have heard, many, many seniors use this facility not only as a place to take classes, but as a part of their daily routine. They come to drink coffee, socialize, nourish themselves through the meal program, laugh and get out of the four walls they are so commonly stuck in. They find comfort and support in being with others that may share similar struggles that comes with aging, and truly make great friends. Through the courses offered, they are able to exercise at a safe pace, stimulate intellectual processes through foreign language and various games and even learn some much needed computer skills. It is important to keep in mind that there are not many places in which most seniors can do this, and removing this facility from the City would greatly impact these indviduals’ lives.

    If you, Gary, had attended any of the meetings, you would know that the goal is not to ‘continue sucking up $140k from the general fund’. The Senior Center staff, City staff, Council members, Task Force members and users of the center have been diligently exploring ways to become more self-sustainable and lessen the cost to tax-payers like you who do not find senior recreation to be a necessity. The seniors are more than willing to do their part, they are just asking for answers on how to do it.

  16. October 28, 2009 at 2:05 pm | permalink

    Steve – I do not disagree that there is merit for the participants in the career center. The point is whether we should subsidize their recreation–whether that recreation be in the form of classes, coffee caches, social exchange or otherwise. The benefit is local to them. The cost is borne widely. Further, it displaces other uses to which that money might be devoted (e.g., police, fire, etc.). In today’s economy it seems to me to be a form of philanthropy we can no longer afford.

    I have and will reiterate a positive suggestion. Create a day care center. Have one or two professionals supervise. The seniors can “adopt” one or more of the children. They can read to them. Play with them. Listen to them. The kids get 1 on 1 attention. The seniors get a reason to get up in the morning. The community gets a reasonably priced daycare center. Even if it did not break even, I’d be willing to support that kind of endeavor. The wide spread of benefits (now and future as the children grow up) would warrant the investment.

    Steve, this is just a raw idea. I’m sure that there are many more. The principle is either self-sustaining operation or community benefit–or best of all, both.

  17. October 28, 2009 at 3:39 pm | permalink

    Seniors already volunteer through the RSVP and Foster Grandparents School tutoring programs.

    Since when did the city justify anything by its price tag? If it did would we have bike paths, $100,000 solar panels to light a few bulbs on the Farmer’s Market, a three quarters of a million dollar art display in the new police/court complex?

    Seniors use the Mack Pool. Seniors use Project Grow’s gardens. Seniors use the Senior Center. Seniors rely on police and fire protection. Let’s scare seniors into accepting the premise the city needs a new revenue stream by cutting their services.

    I would be less suspicious of these cuts if some city council members weren’t pushing a city income tax and looking for an excuse to sell it to the group of voters that turn out to the polls in the highest numbers — seniors.

  18. October 28, 2009 at 4:19 pm | permalink

    Luanne–do all of the 500 seniors we are subsidizing volunteer? Do they use the Senior Center facility? These are not a rhetorical questions-I really don’t know.

    Maybe you put your finger on the problem with your statement “Since when did the city justify anything by its price tag?” Its not the only criterion, but it sure should be one of them. The economic times suggest that this posture should get more emphasis.

    By the way, Luanne, I don’t mind you contributing your personal funds to the maintenance of the center. In fact, I’d applaud the gesture.

    My point is that in a world of scarcity, you’ve got to make choices. Yours is apparently to sacrifice broader interests for those benefiting a few. It is a legitimate position, just one I don’t share.

  19. By Vivienne Armentrout
    October 28, 2009 at 5:15 pm | permalink

    The problem is with the way you are defining the issue, Gary. You keep speaking of “subsidizing” certain interests (you define as “the few”) while “broader interests” are maintained. The problem is, who gets to define those interests? How do we agree on the “broader interest”? For example, if we had had a referendum on it, would the city hall expansion have been funded?

    It could be argued that we are each “subsidizing” any service or activity in which we do not individually participate. I’m certainly feeling the weight of that city hall on my shoulders. So is the good of the broader community defined as the number served in each case? I have never had children but keep on voting for those dern school millages. I’ll never know most of those kids. Why am I subsidizing them? Let their parents pay for their education if they think they need one. And what about all those sports? I don’t even like most sports. Why am I paying for maintenance of those baseball diamonds? How many baseball players are there in Ann Arbor? How do their numbers stack up against the seniors and what is the dollar value of “subsidy” that each one of them is getting?

    Come to think of it, most of the seniors probably don’t play baseball. Could they request to have their taxes pay for the senior center instead of baseball?

    Of course all that is nonsense, but that is what comes of treating government as a user-fee-run operation. OK, I freely admit it. I’m a communitarian. I think that we need individually and as a group to support the needs of all segments of our society. We will have to make some decisions that are unpleasant sometimes but I question whether cutting small amounts that go to services so that large amounts can go for big projects and fountains are the right ones. I’ve noticed that when people talk about “tough decisions”, they mean, “I’ll make one for you.”

  20. October 28, 2009 at 6:27 pm | permalink

    Vivienne–Your point is well taken. There is a definitional issue in defining “broad” versus “narrow.” However, I would contend that subsidizing 500 people for primarily their own social enjoyment set in the context of the City of Ann Arbor is narrow by anyone’s definition of the term. At least the sports teams have bleachers and the kids go home to families who participate vicariously in the activity.

    It is not necessary for us as individuals to participate in every one of the projects or programs we fund as a city. There is some give and take. You perhaps get benefit from one program, I another. If it works right everyone thinks that the trade-offs are equitable.

    That works as long as the programs and projects are pools of interest broad enough to embrace both you and I. The narrower the benefit, the less likely is the give and take between elements of our common society to be seen as equitable.

    I am not a collectivist as you are. But I am also not ignorant of the value of groups. In fact, I’ve built a business analyzing teams and other forms of groups for some of the biggest firms in the world. All I am arguing for is a different balance, but still a balance.

    Rather than dismissing the “small stuff” as minor in the City budget context, I’d suggest focusing on it. I would recommend that you clear the decks as much as you can. Everything is “fair game”–seniors, sports, arts,etc.

    City government will spend as many hours talking and negotiating on a $50,000 project as on a $50,000,000 one. Emotional tension can become as great for a $10,000 item as for a $5,000,000 item. Get rid of the small stuff will give everyone more room to find that elusive balance.

    Vivienne I could go on. However, let me conclude by saying that I respect you and your governmental colleagues–even the ones I disagree with. There are no easy solutions to this equation. Given the economics at the end of the day something is going to get cut and people are going to get hurt. The only question is “which people.” I don’t envy your job.

  21. By Vivienne Armentrout
    October 28, 2009 at 7:44 pm | permalink

    Thanks, Gary, but I am not longer in government. It was tough then though. I’m glad I’m not having to make the decisions the Board of Commissioners is making now.

  22. By John
    November 8, 2009 at 8:24 pm | permalink


    I hope that if the city takes the money from the Senior Center, it also takes your recommendation to hire another police officer because, believe me, we’re going to need one. Maybe you don’t remember the days in Ann Arbor BEFORE there was a Senior Center, but I sure do. Seniors carousing in Burns Park till late at night drinking beer and banging on garbage cans, hanging out in gangs at Packard and Stadium, intimidating law-abiding citizens on the bus. It wasn’t until the Senior Center opened that we got a little peace and quiet around here. I say subsidize small interests or we’re going to have big problems again.

  23. By Margaret Creger
    December 1, 2009 at 11:07 am | permalink

    Although nothing has been posted in this comments section since early November, there has been a great deal learned about Senior Center possibilities for Ann Arbor. Of most interest to me was that Bleznak Real Estate Investment Group (owners of Woodbury Gardens) had approached the city about building a Senior Center using Tax Increment Financing. The “city” – I do not know what group – rejected the proposal.

    The objective of the Senior Center Task Force is to determine if the Senior Center can be “operated in a fiscally responsible manner” which I believe means that it must be virtually self-sustaining. That requires a center that is attractive for facility rental, as well as growing the number of fee based activities at the center. A new center could be sited and designed to achieve these goals. With this in mind, shouldn’t the city reconsider the Bleznak proposal to meet the needs of the city, the seniors, and the investment group?

  24. December 2, 2009 at 11:43 am | permalink

    Margaret — thanks for the comment. I’m not sure what “tax increment financing” means but the idea of a self-sustaining Senior Center sure sounds good to me. The seniors get their recreational opportunities and the city residents get additional facilities/activity opportunities. Your kind of thinking is what we need on a broader scale.

  25. December 2, 2009 at 12:13 pm | permalink

    That would presumably be a senior living complex with a TIF plan whereby the city would award the taxes that would otherwise be paid by the complex to the developer to assist in its building.

    Without knowing any details, that does not sound like a solution to the maintenance of the current senior center activities, and it would result in a tax loss to the city (assuming that a similar development might be built without a TIF arrangement).

  26. By Margaret Creger
    December 6, 2009 at 11:02 am | permalink

    I have since learned that there are several groups interested in working with the city to incorporate city facilities into their development plans. The latest word I saw was that the planning department is now involved. In an age of “transparency” it would be appropriate if the city officials involved kept the public updated on possibilities and plans.

    I hope that these ideas are given serious consideration. I am concerned that in Ann Arbor there is a mind-set that believes anything benefiting the private sector is, by definition, to be avoided even if it would also solve a city problem and achieve a worthwhile goal.

    With an appropriate facility it should be possible to have a self-sustaining senior center; that has worked in other communities. Increasing participation is some of the activites at the center shows that it can work in Ann Arbor too.

  27. By Mary Morgan
    December 12, 2009 at 8:13 pm | permalink

    The Senior Center task force is holding another public meeting to give an update on its work on Wednesday, Dec. 16 from 4-6 p.m. The meeting will be held at the center, 1320 Baldwin Ave.