July 26, 2012 | Volume 42, No.30

Borough may buy lunches for seniors

At the urging of Mayor Stephanie Scott, the Haines Borough Assembly on Tuesday introduced an ordinance to spend $15,000 to restore the senior lunch program to four days a week.

The borough contribution would provide four-day service for 10 months.

The assembly also:

· Approved $37,000 in funding and a revised scope for the first phase of a borough facility master plan, and, through a name change, assigned a volunteer group formerly pursuing a community center to serve as its steering committee;

· Approved change orders of $159,479 for the gym floor replacement project, bringing total spending on the project to $478,000, and,

· Heard criticism that a proposed borough financial disclosure law for elected officials may not go far enough in relaxing current state requirements to satisfy critics.

The meal program, which serves a hot lunch at the Haines Senior Center and delivers meals to shut-ins, was reduced to three days a week effective July 1.

In a memo written to assembly members, Scott said money for lunches would come from federal funds paid to the borough in lieu of taxes on federal property within borough boundaries. “It is not a sustainable solution... I am proposing this contribution as a one-time, stop-gap measure.”

The appropriation would be intended to serve until permanent funding for the program is secured, Scott said.

Options under consideration include partnering with Chilkoot Indian Association to recruit participation by Alaska Natives, with additional program funding sought through the tribe. Another is to establish a “legacy fund” for the program to receive donations.

Scott called the legacy fund a “great idea” and proposed that the borough match donations raised by such a fund, up to an amount determined by the assembly.

Resident Sally Lix spoke to the assembly Tuesday in support of the funding. She said the program was a “drawing factor” in the choice of retirees to move here. She said she also plays cards and exercises during the lunch program. “You just don’t realize what these programs do for seniors.”

On a 4-2 vote, the assembly approved the changes to the facility master plan. Members Debra Schnabel and Norm Smith were opposed.

Borough manager Mark Earnest said revision would result in a “more comprehensive, but targeted, facility needs assessment and building analysis.” “We will have the ability to base future facility decisions on financial best interest, as well as community needs and wants,” Earnest wrote.

In an interview, Schnabel said she objected to incorporating “stakeholder opinions” into the study because the intent of the master plan, as discussed for several years, was to develop an objective look at facilities that would drive spending decisions.

“We’ve turned our backs on the original idea for an unqualified, unbiased review of the state of our facilities and replaced it with (a study) where the final decision will be made on emotional attachments based on ‘wants,’” she said.

She said the proposed study – which does not include water, sewer, or ports and harbor facilities – also is not comprehensive and therefore could lead to conflicts in future decision-making.

“This is the first effort and it will incorporate all the facilities in the borough eventually,” Earnest said.

Schnabel also said a facilities master plan is a function of the assembly and borough staff and should not be led by a group that started with a specific interest. At the meeting, the assembly agreed to renaming the “Community Center Request for Proposals Selection Committee” the “Borough Facility Master Plan Steering Committee.”

Assembly members expressed concerns about the gym floor change orders that included $50,000 in additional asbestos abatement and $86,000 in slab repair. Schnabel said the project did not originate with a community statement of need. Manager Earnest said he also had concerns about the project, including communication.

On the issue of financial disclosure requirements, Mayor Scott said the borough’s proposed regulations – that would require candidates for local elected office to disclose sources and amounts of income in excess of $5,000 – didn’t go far enough toward relaxing state rules for people she has spoken to who say the existing state regulations discourage them from seeking office.

“There still remains a sense of invasion of privacy,” Scott said.

The requirements are aimed at determining potential conflicts between the duties of public officials and their private finances.

Members Steve Vick and Jerry Lapp defended the borough’s proposed change from state requirements, painting them as a middle ground that would provide trust in local government. “Trust, but verify,” Vick said. “We can take it on their word that people will say when they have a conflict, but how do you verify that without a form of some kind?”

The assembly has pursued a ballot question for the October municipal election asking voters whether the community should exempt itself from the state’s financial disclosure requirements for elected officials and instead adopt local disclosure regulations.

The borough’s proposed $15,000 contribution to the meal program would supplement the assembly’s $6,600 appropriation for the coming year to Southeast Senior Services, the agency that oversees the program.

The program was cut after a recalculation of its grant formula blocked Southeast Senior Services from funneling $40,000 a year to the program, as it had done previously.

In a letter to the assembly, Scott wrote that she was “astounded” by the caring atmosphere and wonderful food she experienced during her lunch visit. “Here, I thought, is a well-used, well-loved service, meeting a need.”

In an interview, Scott said the lunches are important to seniors. They’re nutritious, and, for many of these seniors, “this is the meal of the day that they rely on,” Scott said. The meal also is the “social event of the day” for some, she said.

Besides delivering meals to seniors’ homes, the program provides transportation to seniors and others who can’t get around.

Marsha Partlow, regional director for Southeast Senior Services, said the program provides economic benefits to Haines, including $92,000 in payroll, $11,400 in rent, $14,300 in food purchases and $10,000 in gasoline purchases.

The board of directors of the Haines Senior Center met informally in June to discuss strategies toward a permanent source of funds for the meal program.

Mary Lekanof was eating lunch at the center Tuesday. “This is my main meal of the day. And during the winter months, this is the bright spot of the day.” She said that on days when meals aren’t provided, she sometimes resorts to crackers with peanut butter.

Nicki Hopper, who lives alone, said eating well can be difficult. “When you are an elderly person living alone, you don’t cook well for yourself…you kind of let it go by the wayside.” Hopper, who has lived in Haines for 60 years, said she goes to the center’s lunches because she doesn’t have anybody at her house anymore. “I’m alone.”

Doris Peck said the $4 requested donation for meals makes the program affordable for seniors who are on a fixed income. Peck also utilizes the home delivery service when she’s unable to make it out due to illness.

Paulina Phillips said, “I feel like it’s (the cut) left a big hole in my week.”

Site manager and cook Leslie Whittington said there are about 15 meals delivered to seniors’ homes each day, but only on the three days the center provides them. The seniors receiving home delivery can’t make it out to the senior center due to physical limitations and disabilities. “For some of them, it’s their only meal of the day.”