2017-05-18 / Front Page

Town: More options available for seniors

BY TIM RIEL

With 15 months in the rearview mirror, about two dozen stakeholders gathered with the town council Monday night to discuss the transition of the senior center into a municipal operation.

Council President Kristine Trocki said she wanted an open, informal discussion. The 70-minute meeting began with a presentation from the town’s recreation team that oversees the center, Andy Wade, Deb Hagie and Ellen Vietri. According to Wade, the department’s director, the change has helped streamline services. Prior to January 2016, the senior center, which is housed in the Conanicut Grange on West Street, was administered by the Friends of the Jamestown Seniors, a nonprofit corporation. That group, led by Ed Holland, now acts as an advisory body.

In the fiscal year before the transition, the town allocated roughly $75,000 to the friends. As a town operation, that number remains nearly identical, although insurance, maintenance, payroll and workers’ compensation do not come from that budget. Because the town is absorbing those costs, the true number is closer to $119,000, according to Wade. This allows the center to use its budgeted money to increase programming instead of paying $5,100 for cleanup crews, for example.

“We all spend time dedicated to the program at 6 West St.,” he said.

Hagie, the recreation supervisor, said working alongside senior coordinator Ellen Vietri and the friends has increased programs, field trips, participation and lunch attendance.

“It’s become a great partnership,” she said. “We’ve bonded.”

According to Wade’s report, the senior center served 4,870 meals in 2015, which includes 3,415 in-house diners and 1,455 meals delivered to homes. Last year, that number was 5,897 meals, an increase of 18 percent. Following the first quarter of 2017, those figures are trending to a 30 percent uptick for this year.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Hagie said. “Food is love. You eat. You talk. Meals warm the belly. They warm the heart. They warm the conversation.”

According to Hagie, the increased lunch attendance represents more than just meals served. “The meal site is the hub,” she said. “It expands to more things.”

Vietri said the programs also have been a success. Of the dozens of programs scheduled since the town took over operations, most have attracted participants.

“We’re really trying a whole bunch of different things,” she said. “But I’ll admit that there’s been some duds.”

Vietri cited ballet, opera and Scrabble as whiffs, but said there is no way to know what works until they’ve tried. She has been working with the state to recognize trends, but said talking to seniors in town is the best barometer.

“It’s a little bit of science and a little bit of heart,” she said. “But it’s mostly input. We’re having a good time.”

Ron Ratcliffe, of Ship Street, suggested developing a mission statement and action plan with goals and objections. Also, he acknowledged the programming has increased, but the benchmark to measure that against was “zero” prior to 2016.

“Two years ago, we were like people dying of thirst,” he said.

Council Vice President Mike White, one of three seniors on the five-person panel, said that wasn’t the case. When he was running for office in 2005, his first political speech was during an event at the senior center. “It can’t really be categorized as zero,” he said. “That’s unfair.”

Ratcliffe’s wife, Brenda, advocated for a consulting board to draft the mission statement and action plan.

“I was under the impression that the friends were acting as an advisory board,” said Seaside Drive’s Gary Girard. “We have a good, strong foundation.”

Holland, the group’s president, said there were two senior groups in town working against each other for 30 years. Instead of having sparring groups, he suggested, they should unite.

Trocki agreed. “If everybody is only talking to themselves or in their small groups, it becomes very disenfranchising,” she said.

Holland also commended the partnership with Wade’s team.

“They’ve done a great job working with us to accomplish a common goal,” he said. “We’re very happy with the rec department.”

Along with operations since the merger, the town has become a joint lessee of the building, which has about 3,800 square feet of usable space. That includes a 2,100-square-foot ballroom upstairs and a basement cafe that seats 45 people. The Conanicut Grange has rented the building to the seniors for $500 annually for the next half century.

The councilors agreed senior services have been on the upswing since the merger.

“This is a good start,” Councilman Gene Mihaly said. “I think what’s been done is great. There’s been a lot more dialogue and a lot more testing.”

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