2018-07-26 / Front Page

Seniors ask for separate municipal department

Nota says change possible, but only would be symbolic
BY TIM RIEL

The private board that helps oversee the senior center wants a municipal department created solely for its operations by severing ties with the parks department.

The Friends of the Jamestown Seniors, a nonprofit corporation founded in 1989, presented the town with two “desirable elements of a memorandum of understanding” last Thursday. This was during the latest meeting of a joint working group created to formalize the relationship between the two sides.

While Councilwoman Mary Meagher was receptive to creating a new department in the upcoming fiscal year, Town Administrator Andy Nota said it would only be a “symbolic” change. Betsey Anderson, senior coordinator, still would need to depend on the parks department.

“There are many functions she can’t perform,” he said. “The things we do for senior services will still have to rely on other town departments.”

Heidi Keller Moon, a member of the friends, said even a symbolic gesture would be a step in the right direction. She referenced the municipal website, which doesn’t have a separate tab for senior services on the main menu. Instead, visitors online have to navigate through the parks department’s page.

“When you look up senior services in almost every other town in Rhode Island, you are directed to a department of senior services,” she said. “You don’t end up as a subheader. I think that’s a big problem.”

Of the six neighboring communities, Middletown, Portsmouth, North Kingstown and South Kingstown list senior services separately on their municipal websites. Narragansett, however, is similar to Jamestown, listing these services under the parks department. The city of Newport does not publicize senior service on its website.

According to Nota, listing senior services under town departments on the website “is an easy fix.” An independent senior department has been the “destination we’ve been working toward,” citing budget increases from $57,000 to $103,000 since his arrival in 2014.

“We’ve been very conservative in our approach here in town,” he said about the budget. “This is the only area that is growing.”

Councilman Gene Mihaly, however, cautioned that senior services might not be big enough to justify independence.

“This is a program that’s growing rapidly, but having it as a solitary department is probably too soon,” he said. “It’s not big enough for that. I have no idea when we’ll get there.”

Kristen Macinni, attorney for the friends, asked which measures were necessary for the friends to sever ties with the parks department.

“Let’s articulate it for the next financial town meeting,” Meagher said.

As the conversation about creating a new department waned, Nota reiterated this change, if supported by the full council, would not have an obvious effect on operations.

“Substantively, nothing changes,” he said. “We can change these pieces around if it makes you more comfortable, but it’s not going to have a significant impact.”

Although Moon conceded this point, she said it’s important to the seniors.

The sides decided to table the second topic, which outlined control of the senior center site at the Conanicut Grange building at 6 West St. While they didn’t delve into details, Meagher expressed apprehension.

“This one is a little more nittygritty,” she said. “The hierarchy of control of that building is still a little bit unclear.”

According to the group’s memo, the friends would be the “sole and ultimate decision-making authority” on all matters, including capital improvements and rental agreements. The town, however, would be “solely responsible” for expenses related to routine maintenance and repairs.

“You’d have ultimate authority, but it sounds like the town gets the bill,” Meagher said.

Don Richardson, a member of the friends, said senior citizens privately have operated that building for decades without taxpayer dollars.

“We’ve been there for 30 years,” he said. “All the maintenance was done by volunteers. The town didn’t pay one cent, and we did OK. We can do that again.”

Nota rebuffed Richardson’s claim, saying public money has supported senior services since the early 1980s. His board colleagues, moreover, disagreed with him about completely cutting off ties with the town.

Bob Sutton, landlord of Conanicut Grange No. 21, said any memorandum between the two sides should be consistent with the lease, which was co-signed in summer 2016.

He also hopes to review any agreement before it is signed. Ideally, he said, the town will remain active in administering the building.

The working group was created in March following complaints from the friends, which has operated the meal site on West Street since 1994. They accused the town, which became partners and co-lessees of the senior center in 2016, of “metaphorically
running a steam roller over them.” Along with Moon and Macinni, Nancy Beye and
Ellie Chase represent the friends on the working group.

The next meeting tentatively is set for Aug. 9. The two sides said they would spend the interim time period gathering up past surveys that outline the priorities listed by senior citizens in town.

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