Commission: County Will Not Consider Privatizing Aging Services, Will Build New Facility

first_imgIn an unexpected and unusual move, the Flathead County Commission held a hearing Wednesday to discuss at length the past, present and future of the Agency on Aging (AOA), and ended the hearing with a vote cementing plans for a new AOA building and the county’s role as the administrator of the program.In doing so, the commission laid bare its intent that there would be no more discussion or research into privatizing AOA services.There was also discussion about dispelling rumors and “hearsay” about Commissioner Pam Holmquist’s involvement in seeking to privatize these services.During and after the meeting, Holmquist categorically denied having any knowledge about plans to privatize AOA services, and denied any truth to the rumor that she had been working with commissioner candidate Phil Mitchell on potential privatization plans.“That’s not true,” Holmquist said. “I have no knowledge of any plan to privatize Agency on Aging.”In an interview after the meeting, Mitchell also denied having any plan to privatize AOA, especially with Holmquist. He said he and Holmquist had met to discuss county issues, and that AOA was one of them.“At one point, Pam had said, ‘I don’t know if we’ve uncovered all the possible options for AOA,’ and I said, ‘OK, do whatever you want to do,’” Mitchell said.Commissioners Gary Krueger and Cal Scott spearheaded the meeting, which was standing-room only at the commissioners’ chambers in Kalispell, while Holmquist said she felt she had not been given proper notice about the intent of the resolutions.The hearing began with Scott going over the history of studies done on AOA and its services, a list that went back over a decade and took more than 20 minutes to recount in sum.The meat of the issue is the new building that will house AOA. In July, the commission voted to move forward with plans for a $6 million building on the county’s south campus, though only about half of that, or $3 million, is actually going toward AOA services.The other half of the building will hold a new dental clinic for the Flathead City-County Health Department, and provide room for the county maintenance department.While discussing the new building, Scott told the crowd that all three commissioners were on board with the project, and read from a 2012 email from Holmquist saying she wanted a building that fit the needs of the senior population.“We are unified in this matter,” Scott said, adding that it is beyond time to pull the trigger on a new facility.“This has been studied and studied and studied to death,” Scott said.Krueger, who organized the hearing, said he wanted to make sure there were no potential reasons that this project might not move forward in the future.Funding for the new building is in place, he said, regardless if the federal government continues to dole out Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) funds, which were a major funding source for the new building in the early stages.Enough PILT money has been freed up for capital improvement projects, Krueger said, and this cannot be a roadblock in the future.There have been discussions about the county’s capital improvement project funds, which Holmquist voted against in August because she thought the county was overreaching by maxing out its levies to set aside money to save for major projects, such as a new jail.Krueger said the discussion about those funds shouldn’t inhibit the future of the AOA building.“We don’t want to have an excuse not to do this building,” he said. “There is no need to say we don’t have the money.”Following the commission’s opening statements, there was about a half hour of public comment, most of it from members of the senior population or those who interact with the senior population, on the importance of AOA programs.Privatization of these programs, like Meals on Wheels, was a source of anxiety for several speakers, who said they were concerned about who would be coming to their houses.State Rep. Jerry O’Neil, R-Columbia Falls, spoke against the new building, saying it would be a “detriment to my constituents” because it is located in Kalispell and too far for seniors in his district.He asked the commission to instead look into having fraternal organizations and churches provide certain AOA services.“I would like to strengthen our non-governmental services,” O’Neil said.In response, Jim Driscoll, a member of the AOA board, said the new building will house AOA services for all constituents. Driscoll also said the county wouldn’t ask churches to assist any other departments, such as asking them to house non-violent criminals because the jail is full.“To say let’s privatize that or have churches take it over is insulting to seniors,” Driscoll said.There was a bit of a kerfuffle during public comment regarding political speeches and commissioner candidates. Democratic candidate Stacey Schnebel said it can be difficult for these issues to maintain momentum because the face of the commission changes with elections, and commented that it is important not to lose ground on this issue, and thanked the commission for bringing AOA studies and their history to the fore.Republican candidate Phil Mitchell also stood to speak, but was stopped when it seemed he would be stumping for his campaign when he attempted to pass out copies of his speech to the crowd. A quick discussion with a deputy county attorney, who said Mitchell had the right to speak to the issue – and, Holmquist noted, that Schnebel had mentioned a couple of political issues when discussing the makeup of the commission changing – resulted in Mitchell reading from a statement, in which he said he trusts that the commission has “done its homework” on this issue, and Flathead Valley seniors deserve nothing less than a fully modernized, new building.The commissioners spoke again after public comment, and Krueger said there is clear public support for the county’s continued administration of AOA services.He said when he was first elected as a commissioner, he looked into the possibility of privatizing AOA certain services, like meal preparation and delivery, but believes it is not a good fit for Flathead County.Scott said AOA provides many more resources for seniors than just meals and meeting places, and the people who work there truly care for and know the seniors.Holmquist asserted that she supports the new building project, and questioned why the Oct. 8 hearing was necessary, since the commission had already voted to move forward with the building project.She said it was unfortunate that rumors and hearsay about privatization had caused stress among the seniors, but there is already a plan in place for a new building.With that said, Holmquist said she requested specific information on the resolutions that would be proposed at the hearing, and didn’t get it.“I have not been given the opportunity or respect to be given anything in advance,” Holmquist said.She said she would abstain from voting due to the lack of information, to which Scott responded, “We certainly should be, as commissioners, able to think on our feet.”Krueger made the motion that Flathead County would maintain AOA services as they are, and would discontinue any further discussion or research into other options. It passed with a unanimous vote, with Holmquist deciding to vote after all.The second resolution was a vote to cement the county’s plan to move forward with the new building project, and that the county anticipates beginning the next phase before the end of the year. This also passed unanimously.A third resolution directed county staff to bring forward any budget amendments that may need to be made to bring the building to fruition, which Holmquist voted against because she didn’t feel comfortable voting on a resolution with “financial implications.”In an interview after the hearing, Holmquist said she has looked into the possibility of associating a 501c(3) nonprofit with the Kalispell Senior Center because it might be easier to raise money, but she wasn’t looking at a different route for a new AOA building.Holmquist said she voted against the county budget in August because she’s concerned the county is levying too much for capital improvement projects, but that “had nothing to do with AOA.”She also said she has met with Mitchell to discuss county issues with the commission candidate – as she did with Democrat candidate Schnebel – but there was no discussion about privatizing AOA.In his interview, Mitchell said he had, on his own, looked at potential buildings the county could buy to house AOA, but both options fell through. Otherwise, he said he’s been met with resistance when he’s raised questions about options for the AOA’s future, despite his assertions that he’s just trying to understand the situation.“It seems like every time I ask questions, especially on the Agency on Aging, that’s outside of what (Krueger) wants or what (Scott) wants, I’m being trashed,” Mitchell said. “I should be allowed to ask questions.”After the Oct. 8 hearing, AOA director Lisa Sheppard hugged and thanked many of the seniors who showed up in support of the building plans. She said in an interview that she is “absolutely thrilled” the commission is backing the long-term plans for AOA, and that she’s excited the building project is moving forward.“I feel like we’re on solid ground, and I feel happy about that,” Sheppard said. Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. Emaillast_img

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