The county’s fiscal year is on a calendar cycle, meaning it starts Jan. 1. The Fulton County Board of Commissioners will meet today at 10 a.m. to consider cuts to the budget for senior centers and other departments, and has until Jan. 31 to approve the budget. The county’s three other senior multipurpose centers are H.J.C. Bowden in East Point and Harriett G. Darnell and Helene S. Mills, both in Atlanta. They are funded by the county and seniors can use the facilities for free as long as they live in Fulton.
Julian Winnerman, a Sandy Springs resident and board member for Friends of Benson, a fundraising organization for that center, said nearly 600 people have already signed a petition protesting the budget cuts to the facility. He also said two busloads of Benson supporters will attend today’s commission meeting.
The decrease in funding at Benson and the other centers includes reducing several full-time employees’ hours from 40 to 29. Winnerman said those Benson staff members, including art instructor Charles Scogins and fitness program leader Nicole Wyche, each plan to get jobs elsewhere because they cannot afford to live on the lower salary. He also said the center has not had a full-time cook in about six months, meaning some days the center cannot provide lunch.
“These cuts come on top of consistent cuts that have been going on for the past several years,” Winnerman said. “The county has a little game they play. If you have an opening, they will take time to fill it and if they take 90 days, they will say if you [can] do without them for 90 days, you don’t need them. It’s a Catch 22.
“We have a number of members of the center who are handicapped or unable to drive for various reasons. These people will spend all day of almost every day at the center and will spend most of their meals at the center. We have been so handicapped at the center. To me that’s an inconvenience. I go in my car and grab a hamburger or something. These people don’t have that option. The only way we are able to do this is to have other people who have their own duties to perform taking time out of their day to do this. The other functions of the staff are deteriorating because they are spending less time on them.”
Winnerman also said Benson’s staff is “half what it once was,” adding Benson’s lifeguard, Kevin Ware, also is having his hours cut from 40 to 29, meaning the center will no longer be able to have open swim, though aquatic fitness classes will still take place.
“The cuts amount to about one and a half full-time people, 66 hours,” Winnerman said. “But these cuts are on top of consistent cuts for the past two years.”
District 4 County Commissioner Tom Lowe did not return phone messages to his home last week seeking comment, but Ralph Daniels, a Lowe spokesman, said the budget cuts the county is proposing is a worst-case scenario and not necessarily the amount the commission will approve to be decreased.
He also said the planned cuts are based on tax revenue projections from earlier in the year and that the county expects to have more revenue than predicted. In fiscal 2013, the commission approved a budget of $571.8 million, with $53.8 million coming from its reserve fund, but due to higher revenues, the county’s actual budget was $546.1 million, meaning it only needed $17 million from reserves.
“It’s clear why the county has this in their tentative budget document because we’re behind the eight ball,” Daniels said, referring to a budget shortfall brought on by a sluggish economy. “They put a bunch of cuts in there and it’s up to the commissioners to decide which ones stay. The final revenue figures are coming out now. It has to be estimated before the final numbers come out. … I know they’re going to change for the positive but the question is how much. Who [which department] is going to take the hit?”
Daniels said the commission will not approve the budget at today’s meeting, and it likely won’t until its Jan. 22 recess meeting. The commission could even hold a special meeting to vote on the budget between now and Jan. 31.
Regarding Benson’s staff, Daniels said many of those employees whose hours are being scaled back were originally hired as temporary workers.
“A lot of seniors, they see these full-time employees there and they say you’ve got to restore full funding for them so they have full-time,” he said. “They are converting certain positions to full-time [ones] across the county, but they’re going to do without as many people. They have to balance out the fact that they have to pay full-time employees plus benefits. Since they’re already in deficit mode, that’s not happening to any great extent.”
The employees’ hours are being cut back to put the county in compliance with President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“Originally the plan was for this rule to take effect in 2014, though that has been delayed until 2015,” he said. “The county went ahead with the plan to be ready in 2014.”
The senior centers’ combined budget was $6.76 million in fiscal 2012, minus December, the most up-to-date figures the county had. Benson got $1.35 million during that period. Its budget was lower than the three other centers because their average daily attendance was lower, Daniels said. The centers also got an additional $662,777 in grant funds in 2012.
A closer look:
A look at Fulton County’s senior centers in 2012, January through November:
Center Total costs Attnd. People
Benson $1.35 million 199 3,257
Bowden $1.99 million 230 3,849
Darnell $1.77 million 277 3,383
Mills $1.66 million 205 1,741
Total $6.76 million 911 12,230
Total costs: costs including personnel, maintenance and utilities but not including grant funds; Attnd.: average daily attendance; People: number of people served.
Source: Kenn Vanhoose, program manager for the Fulton County Office of Aging