There is a common saying that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get to the door. False rumors also seem to share the same characteristic of a lie.
Rumors were flying fast and furious around the county for the past week over proposed changes coming to the Senior Lunch Program (a.k.a. Elderly Nutrition Program). Seniors were concerned that the program was going to be radically changed. As often happens with rumors that take on a life of their own, they became more and more inaccurate with each telling.
Several rumors were that the “changes were a done deal,” the Board of Supervisors had “already approved the changes,” meals would be no longer served at the senior centers, and only prepackaged or frozen lunches that had to be reheated would be served. One of the most upsetting rumors was that the well-liked Senior Lunch Program staff and cooks would be losing their jobs. None of these rumors were true.
There was one rumor that had some substance, but only as something that is being looked into and it is far from decided. That rumor was that all the senior lunches might be consolidated and cooked at one centralized location, the Inyo County Jail.
The County’s Service Redesign program is behind the recent rumor mill. It is simply a process that is under way to find ways to streamline services and reduce costs without harming public services. It includes others from outside of the county working together to find better ways to provide services and programs through partnerships and sharing of ideas that are mutually beneficial to the public.
From a very large list, the Service Redesign participants decided to narrow it down to 40-50 of the most promising ideas; those with the best potential to be “do-able” and provide substantial savings. It is being stressed that many of the ideas, if not most of them, may never happen simply because, on closer examination, the savings or potential impact on services to the public are unacceptable.
With funding cuts and looming deficits, the initial Service Redesign workshop was held at the county fairgrounds in December and January. They included representatives from the City of Bishop, Mono County, the Town of Mammoth Lakes, the Toiyabe Indian Health Project, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forestry Service and the Inyo County Office of Education − all brainstorming ideas to find ways to work together and share ideas as well as resources. The Senior Lunch Program is only one of many programs and services that are being looked at for savings and greater efficiency.
Prior to meeting with seniors in Lone Pine on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Director Jean Turner spoke to the Board of Supervisors before a planned meeting with seniors at Statham Hall in Lone Pine to address their concerns. The supervisors acknowledged that their phones had been “ringing off the hook” over the rumors that the Senior Lunch Program was being targeted.
Turner provided board members with several documents which broke out the numbers of congregate (seniors that eat hot meals together at local county facilities) and home-delivered meals, the costs for the program and the cost breakdown per meal. These same documents were provided to the seniors attending the afternoon meeting in Lone Pine.
Inyo-Mono Senior Lunch Program Facts
By the numbers, the Senior Lunch Program costs $625,827 with a projected shortage in funding of $329,954 despite efforts by the Health and Human Services to consolidate and streamline administrative costs, making the program “smarter, more streamlined and leaner.” Over the years, funding for the program has been reduced from $1.1 million to $700,000, yet Inyo County has continued running the program.
The lunch program serves 275 congregate meals and 296 home-delivered meals within Inyo County each weekday in Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, Lone Pine and Tecopa. In Mono County (Walker), 95 congregate meals and 50 home-delivered meals are provided each weekday. Adding in all of the programs costs, congregate meals each cost $8.85 to serve per senior, while home-delivery meals cost the county $9.29 each due to packaging, kitchen and driver staffing and transportation expenses.
Last year when the county was faced with the loss of $150,000 in food money from the state, the county convinced the state to provide a one-year fix of $100,000. According to Turner, “We’ve been told that money will not be coming back this year.” Combined with cuts in funding from the federal government, “The bottom line” Turner said, “is there is less money every year and the county Board of Supervisors has been very supportive in using discretionary funds to cover the difference.” She also added that the state director overseeing the program has told her that Inyo and Mono counties’ program is one of only a very few that is still cooking meals.
At the hour-long Tuesday meeting with Lone Pine seniors, Turner, joined by Sheriff Bill Lutze, explained that there is a misunderstanding on exactly what the County Service Redesign program is about and that no decisions have been reached. She explained that she is a “fact gatherer” and not the “decision-maker.”
“In the end,” Turner explained, “it will be up to the county Board of Supervisors to make decisions on how county funds are spent and if any recommendations or ideas coming as a result of the Service Redesign will be adopted.”
Sheriff Lutze made similar observations to Turner’s comments. “We are only now beginning to look at this particular proposal. Jean and I serve on the same working group looking at a range of ideas, not just savings possible with the consolidation of the senior lunch program and the kitchen at the jail, which currently serves 125 meals a day, but also laundry services. There are many others that involve other departments and services. Some have already saved the county money simply by working. This may ‘sound good,’ but on closer examination, it might not be such a good idea.”
As explained to the seniors, the county has six or eight working groups with both elected and paid department heads. Lutze and Turner both run a food program and both have laundry service expenses, so they were put on one of the workgroups, while others were put into groups looking at transportation, utilities and other ideas for cost savings.
Food insecurity concerns seniors in Inyo and Mono counties as many are living on low, fixed incomes. Lone Pine senior and artist Buck Grace drew applause when he stated that “food is personal.” Other seniors spoke to the fear of losing their time spent with other seniors and lunch program staff. The concern of less food that results in packaged meals that also have to be re-heated was brought up.
Seniors asked questions about what other ideas are being explored, offering a few ideas and concerns of their own. One participant questioned the “high salaries and ‘perks’” such as cars for county department heads. Others expressed worry about what is going to happen to county employees “displaced” under Service Redesign and “What is HHS doing to make up losses through grants and donations?” Both Turner and Lutze assured the group that “everything is on the table” and there are “no sacred cows.”
In response to objections over recent pay increases for county employees, Turner noted that most department heads did not get increases, but it was only right for the “rank and file” employees as they have not received a cost of living increase in many years. She went on to explain that with staffing reductions over the years, many county employees were also doing work well beyond their job classification and pay rate. “They are,” said Turner, ”working their rear ends off.”
As to seniors’ concerns about county employees being “displaced” or “losing” their jobs, Turner said that the county has made a commitment to save county jobs and that, if a position were to be cut, that employee would be placed in a comparable job elsewhere in the county. Turner emphasized, “We are firmly committed to keeping jobs for people.”
At the end of the meeting, a promise was made to keep seniors and the rest of the public informed on what is being done to control Senior Lunch Program costs and other county services under System Redesign and that opportunities will be provided for greater participation.
Most importantly, Turner and Lutze assured the seniors that the county is committed to them from top to bottom, from the Board of Supervisors on through the rank and file.