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Local senior meal program could suffer under cuts

A meal program offered to local seniors could be in jeopardy if the state caps its matching funding for elderly programs, an issue currently being debated in the legislature.

By BRYCE MARTIN
Pioneer Editor | bmartin@countrymedia.net

A meal program offered to local seniors could be in jeopardy if the state caps its matching funding for elderly programs, an issue currently being debated in the legislature.

Colleen Rodakowski, executive director of Elder Care in Dickinson, said Wednesday that services her organization provides to southwest North Dakota through its meal program could be impacted if such a cap is introduced.

A rather discouraging picture of the state’s budget recently prompted legislators to introduce a bill that would cap the state’s funding match of the senior mill levy, which is paid to the state by North Dakota counties. This year the state’s match was roughly $3.5 million, according to the North Dakota Treasurer’s Office. That’s about equal to the proposed limit of the state’s matching funds for future years.

The Office of the State Tax Commissioner, however, said it predicted the amount of matching funds paid out by the state could reach about $3.9 million for next year, based on 2016 tax figures, surpassing the cap.

Elder Care’s program, called Café 60, is a pilot program where meals are offered to senior citizens in Bowman County available at Jabbr’s Family Restaurant. Elder Care also offers meals to senior citizens residing in Scranton through its home delivery service based out of Hettinger.

The Café 60 program started in December 2015 as an opportunity to market Elder Care’s meals to more elderly residents, Rodakowski said.

Meals are served at a minimum of three days each week. Seniors in the program can make a selection of what they want, and can eat when they want whenever the restaurant is open.

“We find that we’re feeding more elderly that way,” she explained, instead of just having a set time for meals during the day. The meals are offered at a suggested donation of $4.

The senior mill levy contributes to most of Elder Care’s meal programs, which led Rodakowski to advocate for the legislature’s vote against passing the cap proposal.

Rep. Denton Zubke, who serves District 39 encompassing much of southwest North Dakota, told The Pioneer on Wednesday that he is opposed to such cuts.

“Usually (the cuts) are part of a larger budget or picture and we are left with only two options: vote yes for the funding bill which includes the cuts, or vote no,” Zubke said. “Things get much more complicated at this stage.”

Zubke said it was unfortunate that the state is seeking cuts to programs, such as meals for the elderly, when it’s resting on an estimated $5.4 billion legacy fund.

“But I do also agree with many legislators that once you open the door to the legacy fund, how do you decide whose project is more important,” he added.

Aside from impacts at the state level, concerns exist regarding what the Trump Administration will announce for cuts to programs.

Thus far the administration has promoted a cut to community development block grants that support funding of some elder care meals, but not in North Dakota.

“But we really don’t know what Trump is going to do with his proposals that might affect the Department of Health and Human Services,” she added, which could ultimately affect Elder Care’s programs. “We don’t know what that effect has on us.”

If the state does enact a cap on the senior mill levy matching funds, it would certainly lessen funding for Elder Care’s meals program, but not likely to eradicate the program entirely.

A total of 5,265 senior meals were served from January to December 2016 in Bowman County, according to Rodakowski. Of that total, 1,922 meals were home delivered, with the remaining being served by Jabbr’s.

“I think that’s a nice size,” she said.

Café 60 got its start when Elder Care sought to provide nutrition to local seniors, to sustain their health and even help them remain independent in their home for as long as possible. “That’s our mission,” she said.

With the meals, “we believe that somebody can remain in their home for a year-and-a-half longer before some have to go into a nursing home,” Rodakowski added. “That, to me, is why my staff and I are committed to this program.”

Elder Care is hoping the legislature takes notice of the positive effects its meals programs have had in the communities it serves. Especially since it is anticipated that in the next 45 years the elderly population in North Dakota will double, according to Rodakowski.