BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
TRAVERSE CITY — Some home-bound seniors may lose food assistance in 2013 because the Grand Traverse County Commission on Aging slashed funding that would pay for about 3,800 meals.
The COA, which operates on a special senior millage that will raise more than $2 million in 2013, regularly funds Meals on Wheels of Northwest Michigan. The COA provided $20,000 in 2012 to serve 907 seniors more than 70,000 meals in Grand Traverse County. The COA cut all funding for the program in its 2013 budget.
County Commissioner Ross Richardson recently asked fellow county board members to restore the $20,000 appropriation, but the effort failed after COA board members objected.
"That is so sad," said meals recipient Pat Linden of Traverse City. "I have friends who live on (fast food) chicken and french fries, or hot dogs from Bardens. I have Meals on Wheels, and real balanced meals, and I think that helped me survive cancer seven times."
The funding loss will force the meals program to drop 27 home-bound seniors for whom they don't have funding, officials said.
"We have a woman who is 93 and has all these different medical issues, heart disease, renal failure, diabetes ... and she couldn't stand up," said Lisa Robitshek, manager of the Meals on Wheels program. "If I have to put her on a wait list, and 26 people just like her, that is real sad. These are the frailest of the frail people we serve."
Meals on Wheels, a division of the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency, delivers a main meal once a day to seniors age 60 or older who are unable to leave the home or cook and prepare food.
Often the driver's daily visit to 496 home bound seniors in Grand Traverse County is the only human contact the senior may have for days, Robitshek said.
"They have wonderful volunteers, they become friends and it brightens your day to see somebody new," Linden said.
The program serves about 200,000 meals a year to seniors in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee, and Wexford counties, including what's known as congregate meals at senior centers. Grand Traverse accounts for about 40 percent of the clients and meals.
The COA, which provides services such as house cleaning, respite care, and yard maintenance, voted to eliminate funding for any outside group in 2013, blaming its own budget concerns. The COA eliminated two positions, trimmed its foot care clinics, and raised service fees for 2013.
"It seems inequitable to fund outside groups while we maintain long wait lists for our services," wrote COA member Stacey Lee Isles in a letter to the county board.
But Richardson said COA has a fund balance of over $800,000, its officials underestimated millage revenue by $60,000, and will receive an additional $38,000 in unanticipated revenue this year.
"They have the money, they absolutely have the money," Richardson said. "You help keep Meals on Wheels healthy because they keep our seniors healthy."
County Commissioner Christine Maxbauer, who also serves on the COA board, said if sufficient money is there after summer taxes are collected, the COA will fund Meals on Wheels.
"But we are not going to overspend," she said. "You are going to have trust that we are going to guard our tax dollars."
COA members' main objection during their meeting with county board members was that the board would even consider changing its budget.
"They've worked for eight months on this budget and they were concerned the board was going to ignore their recommendation," said Georgia Durga, COA director. "When they saw that, I think some of our board members were a little bit hot."
James McGee, COA chairman, told the board he yelled for two nights after learning of the proposed change and considered quitting if the county board ignored COA's recommendation.
"We've been down this road more than once when the board of commissioners decided to overrule the COA board," McGee said.
Another COA member, Jim Pascoe, said efforts to reinstitute Meals on Wheels funding effectively challenged COA board members' credibility. Pascoe also questioned whether Meals on Wheels did competitive bidding for services and whether its efficiently operated.
He said the agency should be able to operate on a $520,000 grant from the Area Agency on Aging without county support.
The Aging grant covers less than half of Meals on Wheels program's $1.2 million budget, Robitshek said. The program operates at a cost of $6.58 a meal, the lowest meal cost of any program in the 10-county region.
"There is no better way to serve the most vulnerable people," Robitshek said. "If they don't eat they won't be living to get lawn care. People have to eat first and then everything else comes after that."
The county board will hold a public hearing on its overall budget Oct. 31 beginning at 7 p.m. at the Governmental Center.