Task Force Tries to Save Senior Center

City staff outlines efforts to bridge budget gap

The Ann Arbor Senior Center is a projected $90,355 closer to bridging a $151,687 gap between revenues and expenses, according to an update given Wednesday. At a public meeting, city staff presented preliminary recommendations of a task force that’s been working on ways to generate revenue and cut expenses at the center.

The Ann Arbor Senior Center already offers bridge games, but a task force hopes to raise additional revenue by adding to the center's bridge programs.

The Ann Arbor Senior Center already offers bridge games, but a task force hopes to raise additional revenue by adding to the center's bridge programs. (Photo by the writer.)

Like Mack Pool, the senior center is slated to close on July 1, 2010 as part of the budget plan for FY 2011, which was presented to the city council earlier this year. Following protests from users of those facilities, the council appointed two task forces this summer to develop strategies that could potentially prevent the closures.

Recommendations for the senior center include expanding a trip program, putting a membership fee in place and using part of a bequest to cover operating expenses in the short-term, among other ideas.

During a Q&A following staff’s presentation, several of the 40 or so people attending the meeting pressed for more information and criticized the city in general for having misplaced spending priorities. “We are not blades of grass,” one woman said. “We’re not golf balls. We are human beings, and closing this center would have a devastating impact on people and their families.”

Staff Puts Center’s Situation in Broader Context

As he did at the Dec. 10 meeting at Mack Pool, Colin Smith – the city’s parks and recreation manager – began by describing the city’s overall budget crisis. Through fiscal 2012, the city will likely need to reduce its general fund budget by 30%, Smith said. [See Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor City Budget: Cuts Begin Now"]

Earlier this year, when city administrator Roger Fraser proposed the budget plan for FY 2011, he included closing both Mack Pool and the senior center among his recommendations to cut costs. [The city budgets in two-year planning cycles, but adopts only one year at a time.] The center’s revenues for fiscal 2010 – which ends June 30, 2010 – are projected to be $38,180. Expenses are budgeted at $189,867 – leaving a $151,687 gap that’s paid for out of the city’s general fund.

The senior center task force appointed by council in the wake of Fraser’s recommendations has been meeting for several months, Smith said. They held two meetings in October to get input from the public. [See Chronicle coverage: "Seniors Weigh In on Fate of Center"] Following those meetings, a survey was sent out with questions about use of the center. It yielded about 600 responses – nearly a 25% response rate, Smith said. [.PDF file of survey results]

The initial recommendations presented Wednesday are still being refined – Smith described them as fairly concrete, but not complete. There’s still a month before making a presentation to the park advisory commission, he said, and two months before the recommendations go to council.

Task Force Recommendations

Jeff Straw, deputy manager of parks and recreation, presented the recommendations in three categories, corresponding to subcommittees of the task force: Programming, revenues and expenses.

Programming: Lectures, Fitness, Bridge

For a survey question about what types of activities would bring people to the center, the top responses were 1) educational, 2) health/wellness and fitness, and 3) day trips. The task force recommendations reflect those priorities, with a few additions:

  • A lecture series is projected to bring in $3,022 in net revenue – no topics were specified.
  • The center currently offers fitness classes in yoga, tia chi, and strength and conditioning. Expanding those classes and adding others – in Pilates or Zumba, for example – could raise $2,677 in net revenue.
  • Increasing the number of bridge games – and scheduling them on evenings and weekends – could yield $4,416 in net revenue.
  • Adding non-member program fees could result in $1,000 in net revenue.

In total, those programming recommendations could bring in a projected $11,115 per year. In addition, the task force believes an expanded trip program – more day trips as well as extended overnight trips – could raise $3,390 in net revenue. The couple who’ve been planning the center’s excursions for the center for 20 years, Dean and Carolyn Cole, announced plans to retire from that role earlier this year, Straw said, making it a good time to reevaluate the program. [Though it was not mentioned at Wednesday's meeting, Carolyn Cole passed away just a few days ago, on Dec. 14.]

Expenses: Staffing, IT, Instructor Agreements

The task force identified three main areas to cut expenses: Modifying agreements with instructors, cutting information technology costs and reducing staff time.

Currently, Straw said, the city splits revenue from instructors who offer classes at the center. A recommendation to alter the revenue split and give a higher percentage to the city would bring in an estimated $1,985 in net revenue.

Similar to a proposal for cutting costs at Mack Pool, the senior center task force is recommending the use of fewer computers and software applications, for an estimated savings of $4,000 annually.

There are two proposed ways to save on staff time. A plan to recruit volunteers for the center’s lunch program would eliminate the need for a city staff member during that time, saving $3,672 annually. Additionally, shifting programs that are currently held on Fridays to other days of the week would eliminate the need for a staff person on that day, saving $3,360. Straw said the move could also open up opportunities for long-term rentals on that day.

Revenues: Fees, Fundraising

The main revenue source suggested by the task force comes from tapping the bequest of James Flinn Jr., who gave $100,000 to the center in 2007. With accrued interest, that amount has increased to $109,140 and is expected to reach $112,000 by July 1, 2010. The recommendation calls for using $37,333 per year from the bequest for the next three years, to offset operating costs.

The survey asked if people would be willing to pay a membership fee to support the center – 31% of respondents said they’d pay between $10 to $20, and 28% said they’d pay between $20 to $30. The task force is recommending a fee of $25. Estimating a membership of 500 people – based on the number of current users of the center – a $25 fee would raise $12,500 annually. Straw said the center would market the benefits of membership, including reduced rates on programming, use of computers and high-speed Internet access, and the travel program, among other things.

Increasing the number of rentals is another strategy recommended by the task force. Over a year, renting the facility for 200 hours at $45 per hour would bring in $9,000. Factoring staff time at $2,500, the rentals would net $6,500 annually. A proposed programming schedule showed available hours for rentals (in blue).

More marketing and advertising – including more ads from local businesses in the center’s newsletter – could bring in $3,000 in revenue each year, Straw said. The task force also estimates that revenue from donations and fundraising events, like the Picnic in the Park held this summer, could raise $3,500 annually.

Linda Levy (second from right), an Ann Arbor  Senior Center task force member, talks with board members of Ann Arbor Seniors, a nonprofit that supports the center.  (Photo by the writer.)

Linda Levy (second from right), an Ann Arbor Senior Center task force member, talks with board members of Ann Arbor Seniors, a nonprofit that supports the center. (Photo by the writer.)

What’s Next?

In total, the task force has identified $90,355 in combined savings and revenues. That still leaves $61,332 needed from the general fund to cover annual costs to operate the center. Smith and Straw both said that staff and the task force would continue working on finding additional ways to bridge the funding gap.

The plan is to present recommendations to the city’s park advisory commission at its Jan. 19 meeting. In February, city council will consider those recommendations as part of the budget process. Council is expected to approve a final budget – including decisions on the fate of the senior center and Mack Pool – by its second meeting in May.

Longer-term, the city will be using a $16,949 grant from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation to develop a strategic business plan for the center, with an eye toward making the operation sustainable. Smith noted that those funds can not be used for operating expenses.

Concerns, Questions

Discussion following the city staff presentation fell into two general categories: 1) issues related directly to the senior center, and 2) questions and concerns about broader city priorities and decisions. For this report, we’ll paraphrase and consolidate the issues raised during more than 90 minutes of Q&A.

What’s the status of a proposed private/public partnership to build a new senior center?

John Gajar raised this question, and said he’d communicated with a developer who was interested in building a proposed community center and senior center, in partnership with the city. “It seems like we should be pursuing that vigorously,” Gajar said. Colin Smith responded, saying that city staff continue to talk to that developer, but that no formal plans had been presented.

During the discussion, the developer was not named. Following Wednesday’s meeting, Gajar provided The Chronicle with additional information, including an email he had received in November from the developer, Mitchell Bleznak of Bleznak Real Estate Investment Group/Woodbury Management Inc. in Birmingham, Mich.:

John, pursuant to our conversation regarding the Ann Arbor Senior Center I am interested in working with the community to develop a new senior center. Earlier this year I presented a concept to representatives from parks and recreation and city planning. My concept was predicated on the City creating a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district.

Upon selection of a desirable location, I would design and build a new public senior center in conjunction with a privately owned independent/assisted living (IL/AL) community. The TIF would be established to permit the use of the real estate taxes generated from the IL/AL to repay the debt service for the new senior center and pay 100% of the annual operating expenses. I did identify a few potential sites in close proximity to the existing senior center that could accommodate the proposed development.

How are the city’s golf courses performing, and what about selling off some of that land to raise money?

Colin Smith said it was common knowledge that the city’s golf courses – Leslie Park Golf Course and Huron Hills Golf Course – were losing money. He noted that the council had approved a long-term plan to improve the courses, and that over the course of a six-year plan, the courses are projected to lose progressively less money. [See Chronicle coverage: "Parks Update: Golf, Birds, River Art"]

Christopher Taylor, a city councilmember representing Ward 3 who’s on the senior center task force, said that shutting down the golf courses wouldn’t save all the money currently budgeted for the courses, because the city would still need to fund upkeep for the land. Responding to a question about selling the property, Taylor explained that the sale of parkland would require voter approval. He said the question of whether the city should stay in the golf business is on the table.

Why is Pittsfield Township able to maintain a senior center, but Ann Arbor can’t?

City councilmember Margie Teall (Ward 4), who’s on the senior center task force and who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said that senior centers elsewhere had a variety of different business models. Colin Smith noted that Saline’s senior center was funded in large part from a dedicated millage. Other factors mentioned by people in the audience that might contribute to the success of the Pittsfield Township senior center, compared to the Ann Arbor center, include popular trip programs, a larger facility and better awareness in the community of its programs.

It’s a matter of priorities – the city is able to pay for public art, a new police/courts building, and an underground parking structure, but is struggling to come up with $150,000 for the senior center.

Responding to that statement, Colin Smith made the analogy of keeping multiple checkbooks, and said that different city projects were funded from different sources. “Are the priorities right or wrong? I don’t know – that’s not for me to answer,” he said. His goal at the meeting, Smith added, was to get feedback about the senior center so that the task force could provide as strong of a recommendation as possible to keep it open.

Has the city considered a nonprofit model for the senior center?

Jane Wilkinson noted that despite the $90,000 in savings and additional revenue identified by the task force, there’s still a roughly $60,000 gap that the city would have to subsidize from its general fund. She said a nonprofit model, rather than a government model, might be a better alternative, given that a nonprofit would have lower administrative costs. Colin Smith said the task force would look at that option. Wilkinson is a board member of Ann Arbor Seniors Inc., a nonprofit formed more than a decade ago to support the senior center.

What’s the process if people want to make tax-deductible donations to the city, earmarked for the senior center?

Colin Smith said that if someone wanted to make a contribution to the city for the senior center, it would be tax deductible. One woman said she’d sent a $100 contribution to the city earlier this year, but hadn’t yet received a letter of acknowledgment – needed in order for her to be able to file it with the IRS – and that she hadn’t been able to find out how to get such a letter. Howard Ando – a board member of the nonprofit Ann Arbor Seniors Inc., which supports the senior center – offered that contributing to that group would be another option.

The senior center needs to get more people in the 50- t0 70-year-old age groups involved.

Several people made this observation, noting that a younger demographic would be necessary for the center’s long-term viability, because they’d be more able and willing to volunteer and to participate in programs. One man remarked that Baby Boomers would be the next group of users for the center, and that mayor John Hieftje was in that age group.

Is the task force considering a name change for the center?

Smith said the task force was still debating the name change issue. The survey had asked this question: “Do you feel changing the name from a senior center, to a more inclusive facility name, would attract a wider demographic to use the center?” Responses were: Strongly agree (13.9%), agree (26.2%), indifferent (37.8%), disagree (17.3%) and strongly disagree (5.2%).

How about trying to raise more revenue from bridge players?

One man said that the cost for playing bridge at the Ann Arbor senior center was the lowest of any other place he played. Even if the center raised its fee by $1 per game, at 20 tables a week and four people per table, that change alone could raise about $4,000 a year, he said. Smith said that was good feedback, and that the task force would consider it.

What’s the best way to advocate for the senior center?

The most effective approach is to attend the meetings of the park advisory commission and city council, Smith said, and to speak to those groups during the time set aside for public commentary. He also suggested emailing members of the commission and council – a suggestion that several people in the audience dismissed as ineffective. One woman suggested orchestrating a show of force, “even if we have to stand up and shout.”

Is it possible to have a millage dedicated to funding the senior center?

Smith said that a millage was certainly possible, but he pointed out that the most recent millage proposal – a countywide effort to raise funds for public schools – had failed. Someone in the audience noted that the proposal had actually passed in Ann Arbor, though not by a wide enough margin to offset votes against it in other parts of the county.


  1. By Bob Martel
    December 17, 2009 at 6:22 pm | permalink

    I’m not a big fan of all these “targeted” millages that seem to be in vogue these days. It seems to me that in many cases these represent a failure of leadership on the part of our elected officials. I am pleased, however, by the efforts of the folks interested in both the Senior Center and Mack Pool at finding ways to keep these resources viable.

  2. By Gill
    December 18, 2009 at 12:22 pm | permalink

    How much would it cost the City to close Huron Hills golf course and mow only 1 lane behind the public sidewalk? Project grow could set up some 1 acre plots on the land, and let them maintain the access and areas around the plots. The rest goes wild and blends in with the woodlands that are already on the property. The City has to mow between the sidewalk and street anyway, so it just adds one more pass to the cutting.

  3. By Christopher
    December 20, 2009 at 10:10 am | permalink

    This seems to be a very thorough article, and I especially appreciate the detailed reporting on the Q and A. I’d like to see a section with links going to further information, not just additional A2C articles. Does the Senior Center have a web page? Are there pictures on Flickr?

    I feel somewhat uninformed about what the Senior Center is and what it’s like. I suppose it would be appropriate for me to just go over there (wherever it is), but I’d like to know more before I do (I’m shy). On the inside, is it a cement block space with low ceilings, fly-specked lighting and no windows? What goes on when these scheduled activities aren’t happening? Are there books, conversation areas? Is there convenient parking? Is it on a bus route?

    It seems like quite a small group uses it and I’m not excited about funding these little special interests (including golf courses!). I’d like to be better informed and as I said above I’d suggest a Wikipedia-style section with important links to additional information.

    But thanks for this article. I’m really beginning to like the concept of online news channels – seems like I’m better informed than with just a print version.

  4. By Mary Morgan
    December 20, 2009 at 10:18 am | permalink

    Re. [3] – here’s a link to the senior center’s website, which is hosted on the city’s site. The nonprofit mentioned in the article – Ann Arbor Seniors Inc. – does not have a website.