Budget cuts to affect senior programs

by Kim Hoyum

0908feaAs Michigan legislators determine how to make up for a projected $1.5 billion budget deficit beginning in October, more state funding for human services programs is on the chopping block.
The Senate passed budgets in late June that will cut almost that amount from the state’s budget, including the general fund, school aid fund, Medicaid payments, college tuition grants and local revenue sharing payments.
Among these proposals, although in a smaller amount, is a cut to the state’s Office of Services on Aging, which must decide how to deal with a decrease of 6.1 percent in state funding for senior volunteer programs, including Marquette County’s Retired & Senior Volunteer Program.
The program matches senior volunteers with projects for schools, nonprofit organizations, youth groups, community events and some projects specific to RSVP, and is funded with a combination of state, local and federal money.
“The problem is that our funds come through the Michigan Office of Services on Aging, and they decide how to distribute these cuts across counties,” said Marquette County RSVP director Lori Stephens-Brown.
She said all RSVPs in the state already have cut four percent of their state funding from their 2009 budgets in June, and previously were slated for another round of cuts, as much as fifteen to eighteen percent. The six-percent cut is less than first projected, but may result in deep cuts in some areas.
The office is looking at five options for implementing the cut, one of which is closing five RSVPs in the state. That short list includes Marquette’s program, as well as one in Dickinson and Iron counties, one in the western Upper Peninsula and two in the northern Lower Peninsula.
Stephens-Brown said those five programs were identified for dismantling because they are primarily state-funded, and were deemed less financially viable with reduced funding levels than programs that receive most of their money from federal sources.
“They feel that to keep all programs viable, they can’t keep cutting them across the board; they have to eliminate some programs entirely,” she said.
Marquette County’s RSVP gets about half its funding from the state, and a few thousand dollars from the federal government. The rest is raised from local governments, Stephens-Brown said.
She recently testified to the impact the five RSVPs have across northern Michigan at a public hearing held by the state’s commission in Iron Mountain.
“The main problem, to me, is that three out of these five are in the U.P.,” she said, adding there is no other program locally that does something similar. “There wouldn’t be anyone that could pick up and handle the volunteers. We have just over 300 senior volunteers who work for more than eighty nonprofits, schools and other groups in Marquette County.”
In RSVP’s medical transporter project, retired and senior volunteers in Marquette County also provide transportation to 130 frail and elderly senior residents who do not have access to other forms of transportation to get to medical appointments. They also set up Lifetracker bracelet radio tracking systems for thirty-seven Alzheimer’s patients in the county, and visit the patients regularly to check on them and change the batteries in the bracelets.
Marquette County RSVP advisory board chairwoman Yvonne Clark said the foremost benefit the program provides actually is to the senior volunteers themselves, who can sometimes be forgotten by the community once they are retired or elderly.
“The purpose of the program is to provide meaningful opportunities to the seniors,” Clark said. “All these other programs benefit, but what we are trying to do is keep these seniors active and part of the community.”
For instance, Clark said one of the medical transporter volunteers is ninety years old, but still is active and able.
“She’ll say she has to go out and drive the old people to their appointments,” Clark said with a laugh.
Another woman in her early nineties volunteers by sewing quilts for babies born to low-income mothers, or for other needy children, showing that age really doesn’t have to keep anyone from contributing to the community, Stephens-Brown said.
Clark herself joined RSVP as a volunteer more than a decade ago, after a retirement, a divorce and an illness. She said it brought her purpose, and helped her through a difficult time by allowing her to help others.
“I was absolutely lost,” she said. “If it hadn’t been for RSVP, I don’t know where I would be.”
RSVP’s volunteers are a cross-section of the county, Clark said, including retired businesspeople, retailers, nurses, homemakers and others of every category, all bringing different abilities and interests to the projects they work on.
Stephens-Brown and other program directors are asking the state commission on aging services not to consider the closure of programs as one of the options to handle the budget cut.
The other options on the table would not close any programs, although they would mean further cuts for other programs. Stephens-Brown said any of those options are preferable from her point of view. One would be to give an even 6.1 percent reduction in state funding for each program. This would have a greater impact on programs that receive more state funding, but allow them to stay in place. For Marquette County, it would mean a reduction in staff hours, most likely, Stephens-Brown said.
RSVP’s funding goes to administer projects, organize volunteers, reimburse some volunteers for mileage, pay her salary and that of a part-time staffer, and run its office.
A second option is to take a percent reduction that takes into account federal and state funding, to equalize the impact, she said. Programs that get more federal funding would take a greater cut to their state funding, but all of them would be cut in the same amount.
“That seems fair to me, so that if you’re federally or state funded, you end up getting the same amount of cuts,” she said.
Another option before the commission is to redistribute state funding to meet federal and local match requirements. In other words, state funding would be conserved by only granting it to programs that need it for matching funds requirements. That would likely come out to be a positive for Marquette County, Stephens-Brown said, by granting them slightly more funding. A final option is to cut state funding from only those projects with federal funding, in proportion to the amount of federal money they receive. Here, that would mean a small amount of lost funding, but not as much as most downstate programs would lose.
Advocacy on the program’s behalf is still worthwhile, Stephens-Brown said, since the state House has not yet approved a budget package, and the governor has the final say on any 2009-10 budget.
“At this point, there is still time for the budget to be affected by people writing their state legislators, the governor and the state OSA,” she said, adding the RSVP is planning a day of concerted phone calls and letter-writing, to be held sometime before the fall.
She said of all the volunteer groups in the country, RSVP volunteers aren’t likely to advocate for themselves, and need their communities to do so.
“Seniors aren’t about to go out and tell people all the great things they do,” Stephens-Brown said. “That’s just not how they do things. They aren’t like young people who are used to having to show all the time what an impact they’re having.”
Clark said volunteer programs are even more important in a poor economy, as more people turn to nonprofits and schools for their needs, and senior and retired volunteers can provide the knowledge and experience to get projects done.
“In this time and place in our area, even our state and our country, with the financial circumstances we find ourselves in, what better way to get more bang for your buck than RSVP?” she said.
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