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Pocahontas County’s three senior centers may close

MARLINTON, W.Va. — Pocahontas County Senior Citizens Inc. is facing possible closure following another round of budget cuts in Charleston.

The nonprofit organization is at a crossroads, the result of several consecutive years of state budget cuts, a loss of federal funding and the impending raise of the state’s minimum wage, administrators said.

“Right now, we’re operating at $7,000 less than what we were four years ago,” Executive Director John Simmons told The Inter-Mountain.

The organization operates three centers across the approximately 100-mile-long county – in Green Bank, Near Marlinton and in Hillsboro. The group has 35 employees and approximately 15 volunteers.

The organization is under contract with the state to provide meals, medical transportation and home health.

It offers daily in-house meals, home-delivered meals three times a week through the federal Meals on Wheels program and pantry items for at-home clients supplied every Friday to get them through the weekend.

The homemakers, or home health program, is the only one of the centers’ functions that generates funds.

“The return on investments is higher than what we pay our employees,” he said. “The difference between what we pay our help and what we pay for that service is actually what we operate on.”

The meals and transportation programs are lucky to “break even,” Simmons noted.

The state, utilizing the federal Meals-on-Wheels allotment and other funds, provides a $5.25 cent reimbursement per meal for a limited number of in-house meals, per annual contract. The Meals on Wheels are reimbursed at $5.75. The amount of reimbursement has not increased since 2001. Simmons said he gets approximately a dozen new applications every month for the Meals on Wheels program.

“By mid-July each year, historically, we’ve used up the reimbursement that we’re allowed,” he said. “We have to carry that for at least two months on our own until it renews itself.”

The organization’s fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. To keep the program running through the year, the nonprofit relies upon a variety of fundraisers, such as raffles, cake bingo, spaghetti dinners and baked goods sales. The Pocahontas County Commission also provides $50,000 to the organization annually to assist in keeping all services available to seniors after state funds are depleted.

Clients are not charged for the meals – which are all approved by a state nutritionist – although donations are accepted. Simmons said the group collects an average of 30 to 45 cents for every Meals on Wheels meal while every in-house meal brings in an average of $2.30 in donations.

According to the 2010 census, there were 8,719 residents of Pocahontas County. Simmons said 3,400, roughly a third of the population, are 60 or older. There is no public transportation available in the county.

Simmons noted the centers’ transportation costs are higher because they have to to reach all eligible home clients. The Marlinton office logs 114 miles three times a week through its Meals on Wheels program and the Green Bank office logs 94 miles three times a week

“We’re so spread out in this county with the mileage, but we’re not allowed any extra funding,” he said. “It’s much easier for some of these little counties some of them you could fit three in this county.”

Simmons said the nonprofit, which was founded in 1972, was able to operate “in the black” until four years ago.

“That’s when the federal sequestration (automatic spending cuts) began and approximately $2 million was cut from Meals on Wheels,” he said. “That’s never been replaced.”

Three years ago, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin mandated a 7.5 percent cut across all agencies, which amounted to approximately $1.1 million taken away from state senior programs that had generally been earmarked for equipment replacement and facility maintenance. The governor continued the cuts into the following year.

Last year, Tomblin rescinded the cuts, which added that $1.1 million to senior programs – but West Virginia Bureau of Senior Services Commissioner Robert Roswell elected to allot those funds to the Medicaid waiver slot.

The Medicaid waiver is used to finance “high end” care for senior clients enrolled in the homemakers program. Simmons acknowledged this is absolutely necessary as Medicaid gets further behind at the state level, but he said the organization cannot qualify for the waiver slot because it requires an unobtainable number of cases within the organization’s service area. The centers currently serve eight eligible clients.

“If we don’t have the clients, then we can’t draw down that million dollars that has been moved,” he said. “It’s like taking a toy away from a kid and putting it up on the highest shelf where they can’t reach it.”

To further complicate things, Tomblin mandated an executive order last week calling for a four percent cut on all agencies. Simmons said with the Jan. 1 increase of the state’s minimum wage to $8.50 – without terminating employees – the organization will have to pay approximately $2,000 more per month and $24,000 more each year. “There’s no fix,” he said.

“There was no money appropriated to cover that increase, so it’s just digging in deeper,” he said. “We don’t know if we’ll be able to operate after the first of the year when this increase in wages goes into effect because you can only stretch a dollar so far.”

Simmons noted there are many senior centers around the state in critical condition that are facing the same economic woes.

“This whole program is collapsing,” he said. “It’s going to be devastating to the seniors of the state.”

Tony Byrd, vice president of the organization’s board of directors, told The Inter-Mountain that with a lack of business in Pocahontas County, many of the seniors’ children have moved away, seeking work elsewhere. He noted many clients rely on the organization, not just for social interaction, but to maintain their health.

“I don’t know what would happen if we shut down,” he said. There’s nothing to take the place of us there’s no organizations.”

Byrd noted a closure could result in people who are in dire need of medical care being unable to reach a facility to receive it and a number of seniors no longer being provided meals. Byrd said clients have reported to him that without the provided meals they just wouldn’t eat.

“It’s going to kill them,” Byrd said. “Good food keeps them healthy.”

Del. Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, was one of 43 representatives to attend a senior rally at the Capital in support of the seniors although it amounted to a wonderful notion which had little result.

“My big fear is that the only human contact many of those seniors have is when the senior center takes them their meal for the day,” she said. “When we can’t take care of our seniors – shame on us.”

Campbell acknowledged money is tight and there are many struggling programs, but, she said, “The seniors have done everything they can to make West Virginia everything it is that we enjoy.”

“I wish I knew what the answer was,” she said. “I believe seniors should be one of our top priorities.”

Campbell added she plans to do anything she can to help keep senior centers open “any way, shape or form.”

“We can’t turn our backs on them,” she said.

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