Seniors may face new fees at 5 centers Proposed measure would allow maximum cost on sliding scale

'Pay-for-service' trend

Plan necessitated by state reductions in local grants

April 24, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel seniors might soon be paying a flat fee to use the county's five community centers for the elderly, as the Department of Aging struggles to preserve popular services with a shrinking budget.

The County Council is considering a bill, supported by the Gary administration, that would allow the department to take over a state-subsidized program for frail seniors by charging newcomers the maximum amount allowed on the sliding payment scale. The measure also would let department officials impose other undetermined fees to cover costs.

The concept is part of a "pay-for-service" trend sweeping Maryland governments. From trash pickup to 911 calls, local governments are looking increasingly to the public to pay for services once subsidized entirely by taxes.

"There are more demands for services than there are funds," said Lisa Ritter, spokeswoman for County Executive John G. Gary. "To the extent you can make services available to those who use them and not a burden on the general tax base is a good thing. But we recognize there is always a concern when you start charging directly."

During this year's session, the General Assembly eliminated two grants that brought the county almost $60,000 a year for physical and mental health programs aimed at "borderline" seniors -- people at least 55 years old who need help to exercise but are not ready for costly adult day care.

Those who receive four hours of daily supervision will continue paying between $5 and $28 per day. But to ensure continuation of the program, new enrollees will automatically pay the highest fee, county officials say.

"I don't think we'll be able to continue this kind of specialized program without this," said Diane R. Evans, the Arnold Republican who chairs the council.

Last year, 64 seniors used the "Senior Center Plus" program, paid for through a $37,364 grant the county has received for two years. State legislators cut 25 percent of the grant this year and eliminated it entirely for next year.

The state also will no longer contribute $21,266 to help run the county's five senior centers, a subsidy Anne Arundel has received for 10 years.

Carol R. Baker, director of the county's Department of Aging, said the agency may begin charging seniors $10 a year to use the community centers. The fee, which under the council bill would need approval from the Area Agency on Aging Advisory Board, could be added later this year to supplement the department's $5.5 million annual budget.

Dr. Baker said the charge would raise roughly $60,000 a year to help cushion programs from future budget cuts, buy new equipment or provide other services without creating new fees. But she added that any of the 15,000 seniors registered at the centers, many living on fixed incomes, who could not afford the fee would not have to pay.

"The last thing you want to do is nickel-and-dime people to death," she said. "You can certainly reach a point of diminishing returns."

The council will decide whether to allow the Department of Aging to begin charging fees on May 6. Last month, the council approved a measure that raised the maximum pay for the agency director 22 percent, bringing it in line with other department heads' salaries.

The bill comes as the county agency and others around the state tinker with programs and personnel to make ends meet during tough economic times. Baltimore County, for example, decided last month to save money by hiring a private company to run its adult day care services. But now county officials have decided to close three senior centers instead.

In 1993, Dr. Baker privatized the personnel segments of the department's transportation and nutrition programs, removing 48 employees from the county payroll and saving $20,000 a year. In addition, the department solicits contributions to help pay for both programs, collecting $140,000 a year from private sources.

"If it's a choice between charging or closing, then they have to charge," said Margaret B. Nitkoski, president of the 15-member aging advisory council. "We've had it free for so long when the funds were plentiful. Maybe it's just a matter of educating the public."

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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