2016-06-02 / Around Town

Senior Centers Defend Funding

State Grants Critical at EKH
By Barry Bridges


Virginia Beltz; Theresa Croteau; Carmela Geer, Executive Director; Mary Moniz; and Patricia Braun enjoy their afternoons with the Tuesday Cribbage Club at the Edward King House. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Virginia Beltz; Theresa Croteau; Carmela Geer, Executive Director; Mary Moniz; and Patricia Braun enjoy their afternoons with the Tuesday Cribbage Club at the Edward King House. (Photo by Jack Kelly) With state grants in the headlines and under the microscope at the General Assembly after instances of alleged mismanagement, officials from recipient organizations appeared at the Statehouse throughout May to give legislators a better sense of how the monies are spent.

Carmela Geer, executive director of Newport’s Edward King House, and Arleen Kaull, executive director of the Middletown Senior Center, were among those appearing before a House Finance subcommittee on May 17, when both spoke on the importance of community service grants to their senior programming.

State-sponsored grants fall into two categories: “community service” grants are funded through state agency budgets, while smaller “legislative grants” are sponsored by individual lawmakers.


Elizabeth Ann Yashura, Arleen Kaull, Theresa Pereira and Alice Whitney enjoy lunch at the Middletown Senior Center. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Elizabeth Ann Yashura, Arleen Kaull, Theresa Pereira and Alice Whitney enjoy lunch at the Middletown Senior Center. (Photo by Jack Kelly) In the current fiscal year, EKH received a $20,000 community service grant administered through Rhode Island’s Division of Elderly Affairs, while Middletown secured $6,233.

The approximately $14,000 difference in amounts may be a function of the contrasting funding mechanisms in place in Newport and Middletown.

The Middletown Senior Center is designated as a municipal department by the town charter, and is therefore included in the town budget as other departments are. The annual appropriation is currently about $229,000.

“Middletown is very supportive of our seniors and the town covers our expenses,” Kaull told Newport This Week. “But the center decided years ago that we would also seek grants and do fundraising for extra things that help to create purpose for our seniors.”

The center uses its $6,233 community service grant for a monthly newsletter to constituents throughout Newport County. “Those dollars go toward letting them know of our services and the programs we provide,” she told the subcommittee.

As far as other revenue sources, the Middletown center’s 724 members pay a $15 annual fee, and Sen. Louis DiPalma backed a $1,500 legislative grant in 2015.

The picture in Newport is different, where operations are more grant dependent. While the nonprofit 501(c)(3) EKH benefits from a minimal rent of $1 annually for its city-owned building, it does not enjoy a line item among the city’s general budget expenditures.

“It will be a surprise to many that we’re not a municipal center,” Geer said. “Folks think I work for the mayor, but that’s not true. I am not a city employee, although we partner with the city and want to serve it well.”

However, the center’s approximately $204,000 annual costs of operations, programming and maintenance are offset somewhat by designated city trust funds. Newport Finance Director Laura Sitrin explained that EKH receives around $39,000 in annual civic support from two accounts established from bequests made in the 1800s to aid the “poor and aged.”

Legislative grants totaling $8,000 sponsored by Sen. Teresa Paiva Weed and Rep. Lauren Carson helped defray expenses at EKH in 2015. The remainder of the center’s expenditures are financed through a membership fee of $25, foundational grants, donations, and instructional tuitions.

“Every community in the state handles their senior centers differently, so I wouldn’t single out Newport as being unique,” Geer told Newport This Week. “About half of the centers in Rhode Island fall under the municipal umbrella.”

As for EKH’s community service grant, she told legislators, “We utilize that money to literally keep the lights on. Our water, our lights, our heat, our insurance, everything that it takes to keep the physical plant of our building running comes from that $20,000. It’s not fluff money…. For many of us this is a lifeline to keep these services open.”

The director would like to see direct state funding for senior centers, similar to the way money is appropriated for schools. “We do not look at our senior centers the way we look at our schools,” she told the subcommittee. “We provide such important opportunities for our seniors that are likened very much to what we provide for our kids.”

EKH provides “soup to nuts” services, including 84 programs for senior enrichment and education. The center also covers basic needs, providing over 5,000 meals annually and coordinating transportation services. “The mission for all of our senior centers is to help folks be healthy, independent, and active for as long as we possibly can,” Geer described.

Rhode Island’s growing senior population is one of the primary reasons to reexamine the funding structure, according to Geer. Rhode Island is eighth in the nation in its percentage of over-65 residents, and second in over-85. Within the state, Newport County is the highest in over-65.

“It’s not uncommon now for folks to live until 80 or 85. The need is exploding, but we’re being asked to provide more and more with less and less,” she said.

Speaking with constituents at EKH on April 28, Rep. Carson said that she hopes seniors will generally work to make their voices more effectively heard through political action.

“There’s no presence of average seniors lobbying on their own behalf in Providence,” she observed. “Seniors need to advocate to the best of their ability on their own issues. You are the ones who do most of the voting, and my colleagues know it.”

Geer argued that a larger political presence will indeed begin to be felt, if only as a result of the growing number of seniors. But if the centers are to continue playing a role in the life of older Rhode Islanders, she emphasized that there needs to be a better system.

She is hopeful that a statewide strategic plan for aging currently under development can help to drive change.

“We’re just not there yet,” Geer said. “But right now the state grants provide real money for real purposes. It’s frightening to think that the rug could be pulled out from under us.”

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