County commissioners spent about 45 minutes reviewing their prior decision halting funding of the coordinator position serving the non-profit Senior Center in North Branch. After all was said and done, last week the commissioners upheld their earlier 2013 levy decision -- which eliminated the $31,000 that county taxpayers have been spending annually. County Administrator Bruce Messelt presented a program evaluation to the County Board as part of last week’s budget review. In it he clarified the relationship the county has with the not-for-profit organization. Messelt said he could find no contract binding the county to the Ecumen-owned Uptown Maple Commons, which houses the center. His research shows the non-profit 501C-3 senior center and Ecumen are the only two parties mentioned in any space agreements. No state statutes require the county to provide center support, but state laws do allow counties to do so at their “discretion.”
Messelt surveyed other administrators of counties in Minnesota, and received 38 responses (of 87 counties); and 28 of the 38 provide no support to senior centers. Of the 10 counties that do-- five spent less than $10,000 annually. Some have joint centers supported by municipalities/counties. Based on sign-in sheets for activities like dice, cards and exercise groups; about 10 percent of the North Branch Senior Center visitors reside outside of Chisago County. Senior Center Coordinator Dawn Cash said she is unable to provide a count of individual users. In budgeting information she has regularly submitted requesting additional funding from cities and townships, somewhere between 13,198 to 15,000 activity contacts take place at the center. (One person signing in for a meal, a defensive driving class, a coffee break and a game of 500 would count as four activities contacts.) The non-profit has a smaller budget than those legally required to perform financial audits, so there was no detail on how much funding is also provided by cities and townships. The estimate is about $5,000. Messelt said he also wouldn’t speak for the building owner, Ecumen, but, “It is up to the building owner and the senior center organization to work out how and when coordination” or scheduling of facility use gets done. A summary presented last week reported senior center personnel costs at $55,000 which is 76 percent of the non-profit’s expenditures. Facility operations were reported at $14,000. Messelt said Catholic Charities pays rent to the non-profit senior center organization to use the community kitchen.
Catholic Charities told Messelt it could just rent directly from Ecumen if the “center” dissolved or find another kitchen. Messelt said the group told him that the senior citizens’ nutrition services are unrelated to the county funding issue. “Theoretically, they (center users) all say they can continue to exist,” added Messelt. Users include Avada hearing diagnostics, AARP, St. Cloud Legal Services, insurance agents who hold seminars, foot care nursing services are provided there for a fee, Fairview utilizes the center, and the senior defensive driving refresher course is offered there. The county administrator suggested county commissioners could lend support as the non-profit seeks to “leverage funding” from agencies and private foundations, etc.
The County Board can perhaps consider providing “matching” funds when it would aid the non-profit center to be awarded a 50-50 grant. Messelt said he didn’t know how senior programming sites elsewhere in Chisago County provide their activities and services, but there are federal and private funding streams available. (For example, Chisago City is home to comprehensive senior activities through Parmly LifePointes, which is part of Ecumen. There are area churches and public sites elsewhere supporting senior social programs and several community centers in other cities that the county does not help fund.)
Commissioner Mike Robinson made a motion to revise the 2013 budget and shift $25,000 into the senior center position out of what was earmarked for contingency. Lora Walker seconded it, but the action failed 3-2. Robinson stated, “We’re not talking a lot of money here.” Walker supported the motion, saying she’d like to see scheduling for using the center continue. She preferred a taxpayer funding deadline-- giving the organization six months, for example, to start applying for grants. “I don’t support using levy dollars (forever) I prefer to see a more progressive solution,” she added. County Board Chair George McMahon said the senior center is funded through 2012. Adopting the levy a few weeks ago for next year, basically gave a three-month notice anyway. “This (the center) isn’t going to end tomorrow,” McMahon noted. Public comments: There were a people who spoke during this meeting related to the commissioners’ review.
This was not a public hearing on the budget, but citizens spoke during open microphone at 7 p.m. ~ One citizen said there needs to be stronger fundraising done by the non-profit and he’d be willing to help. ~ A North Branch Lions member said completely eliminating the annual appropriation is too abrupt and it would be better if it was gradually reduced. ~ One woman said many non-profits are cultivating new sources of revenue and have “seen the handwriting on the wall,” and the senior center needs to do the same. Sometimes, she stated, it takes an interrruption in the status quo for everybody to take a step back and re-assess how things are being done. ~ A candidate for North Branch Council felt that the city of North Branch “doesn’t get a lot from the county” and the commissioners should be more agreeable to spreading county assets around.