Local governments are coming to grips with a harsh reality: Though revenues are down, the problems that tax money once solved persist. The challenge cannot be addressed simply by slashing programs. How can government, in good conscience, close the doors of a senior center or a health-care clinic, for instance, leaving nothing in it place?
Baltimore County now confronts that dilemma squarely as the old Lutherville elementary school, which has served as a popular activity center for the county's growing senior population, is reconverted into classrooms. The county does not have the dollars to build and run a new center. So it is considering an innovative deal with the Friends Lifetime Care Center of Baltimore Inc., under which the corporation would provide not only a new senior center but housing for 75 to 90 moderate-income elderly residents as well.
The plan calls for the corporation, which owns the pricey Broadmead center north of Hunt Valley, to buy the old Cockeysville Elementary School and convert it into life-care housing -- individual apartment-style units that offer some meal service, limited medical services and social activities.
In contrast to the existing high-cost "retirement communities," like Broadmead, which requires an entrance fee of up to $150,000 and monthly fees of up to $2,800, the Cockeysville facility would require a refundable $10,000-to-$15,000 entrance fee, with monthly fees as low as $900. In addition to providing needed senior citizens housing, the corporation would build a new senior center on the site to replace the Lutherville center and create 200 parking spaces, which has the tangential benefit of alleviating some of the local traffic problems.
The most innovative aspect involves the corporation's eagerness to let the playing fields at the elementary school remain open to the community if it can run a concession stand there, an idea which frazzled Little League parents find appealing. The arrangement would not only maintain a valued recreation resource but also foster important interaction between the community's older and younger citizens.
Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden, who has spent most of his first term evangelizing about such public-private sector arrangements, is actively supporting the project. If it is brought to fruition, the Cockeysville center could well become a model for other cash-strapped jurisdictions seeking to meet social needs without increasing taxes.