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Senior food, transit programs in limbo
Hall, Gainesville debate how to fund Community Service Center
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Food and transportation for the elderly hang in the balance as the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center faces more federal budget cuts.

Service Center officials have sent a letter to city and county officials asking for guidance in making up an anticipated loss of $65,000 from a second round of sequestration.

Sequestration, which are automatic federal budget cuts that began March 1, will total $1.2 trillion in the coming decade unless Congress acts. Among the cuts made to government programs and services is a reduction in money for food for seniors.

The community center, jointly funded by Hall and Gainesville, operates Meals on Wheels, which delivers hot meals to homebound elderly residents, and the Senior Life Center, where groups of seniors are fed.

Trimming the federal budget also impacts the Dial-A-Ride bus service, which transport many seniors, especially those who live in the county, to the center.

Phillippa Lewis Moss, community center director, said there are three options: find more money, create more revenue or decrease expenses. She sent the letter about a week ago and hasn’t heard back from either local governments. Elected city and county officials said they are discussing whether they can help with the budget shortfall.

Meals on Wheels currently has about 65 people on a waiting list for service. The senior center also has a waiting list of about 20 people. Elderly residents are registered as clients of the senior center so the community center can get reimbursed from the federal government and state for the food they eat. Even if a client leaves the center, that person can’t be replaced because there’s no reimbursement money.

“We get reimbursed based on the number of people that eat and the number of people that come, and we’re able to manage those programs for,” Moss said. “So if I can’t allow more people to come and eat or replace those people who are gone, eventually I won’t have enough money to pay for the staff for the center, which would mean ultimately a reduction in staff or a reduction in other expenses. And we’re pretty tight.”

One funding source for the Dial-A-Ride transit system is the Older Americans Act. The Georgia Department of Human Services is anticipating a 17 percent cut in programs funded by that law for the state.

Dial-A-Ride is open to all county residents and requires a reservation two weeks to at least 48 hours before pickup. The 10 buses and vans operate from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Hall County took over full financial responsibility of the reservation bus service after declining to jointly support it and the Red Rabbit fixed-bus system, which runs primarily in the city. Richard Mecum, Hall County Board of Commissioners chairman, said commissioners have to decide whether to further support the community center and the transit system, and he’s not sure what the answer will be.

“We’ve got several other issues,” he said. “The federal government is cutting back on several different programs, and the state basically is passing on some programs that we have to do that don’t have any funding to them, so we’re having to fund those. So money is getting kind of tight right now.”

Mecum declined to say what other government programs or services are being cut because “it puts some people on the spot.”

“You’ll hear about it soon enough,” Mecum said. “We’re trying to figure out what to with it and how to handle that.”

Gainesville Councilman George Wangemann said deciding to make up the loss from the federal government or reducing the service will be a difficult decision. Like Mecum, he didn’t have an answer.

“We’re going to have to take a look at our budget to see if we have excess funds in the budget that might help pay for this,” he said. “I certainly would not favor raising local taxes to do this because it just seems like we keep taking hits from the federal government and sometimes the state government.”

Wangemann said City Council members will need to discuss it soon as they review the first half of fiscal year 2014. He also suggested churches and the community could help make up the difference.

Gainesville attorney Wyc Orr, who played a pivotal role in eliminating the Meals on Wheels waiting list earlier this year through private donations, said last week he hoped local governments would step in to help.

“The danger is that governments, including local governments, don’t look carefully at their budgets and their available funds and don’t step up because of the thought that ‘Well, if we don’t do anything, a private fundraising will be sufficient,’” Orr said. “We don’t know that. What we don’t want to do with private fundraising is to ever give different levels of government an excuse for not doing what they have within their means to fill these needs.”

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