Proposed county budget threatens funding for senior programs

The budget would eliminate funding for South East Seniors, Longfellow/Seward Healthy Seniors and Nokomis Healthy Seniors. The programs provide local seniors with nursing, transportation, programming and other resources.

Carol Cooke poses for a portrait in her home on Thursday, Oct. 17. Crooke will turn 90 in December and has been involved with SE Seniors for two years. She participates in the Connections Club, a pen pals program and uses SE Seniors as a resource when she has questions about senior services. Crooke says, “It’s just a wonderful resource. I would miss it if it weren’t available. I can’t imagine what they would cut back.”

Jasmin Kemp

Carol Cooke poses for a portrait in her home on Thursday, Oct. 17. Crooke will turn 90 in December and has been involved with SE Seniors for two years. She participates in the Connections Club, a pen pals program and uses SE Seniors as a resource when she has questions about senior services. Crooke says, “It’s just a wonderful resource. I would miss it if it weren’t available. I can’t imagine what they would cut back.”

Emma Dill

Senior citizens turned out at a Hennepin County budget hearing Thursday to oppose the elimination of county funding for three senior services programs, including one serving seniors near the University of Minnesota.

The proposed 2020 county budget would cut a total of $110,000 in funding from block nurse programs South East Seniors, Longfellow/Seward Healthy Seniors and Nokomis Healthy Seniors. Each program provides local seniors with nursing, transportation, programming and other resources. County money provides the programs with a reliable source of funding that helps them maintain core programming, staff say.

SE Seniors, which serves more than 300 seniors living in Southeast Como, Marcy-Holmes and Prospect Park, relies on the $22,000 in county funding to match other grants, said Erica Schmiel, the nonprofit’s community outreach coordinator.

County money makes up part of SE Seniors’ $197,000 budget. If eliminated, staff would have to supplement program funding by writing other grants, Schmiel said.

“They’re just asking us to spend our staff time chasing money versus serving people,” she said.

Carol Cooke, an 89-year-old Marcy Holmes resident, said she relies on SE Seniors for information about resources in the community. 

“It’s just a wonderful resource,” Cooke said. “I would miss it if it weren’t available. I can’t imagine what they would cut back.”

Cooke also participates in the Connection Club, a program which pairs University students with local seniors. For more than two years, Cooke has met weekly with Masturina Mohd Yazid, a University senior from Malaysia.

“Carol is a good listener and gives me lots of advice,” Mohd Yazid said. “It’s nice to have someone. I feel like I have a grandma here.”

Services provided by SE Seniors help keep seniors from becoming dependent on the county, said SE Seniors co-interim director Vince Netz.

“We help prevent dependency on county services for many seniors by keeping many of our clients … from entering the churn of people in crisis,” Netz said. “Many seniors need just a little help to stay independent and out of the churn.”

The cuts to the block nurse programs do not reflect the value of the program, but instead represent a need to balance the county’s budget, said Jennifer DeCubellis, deputy administrator of the county’s Health and Human Services Department.

“This is not a value statement. The charge that we were given by the board is to live within the means of what’s allocated to us,” DeCubellis said during the hearing. “When seniors are kept healthy at home, health plans make money, the state of Minnesota makes money, Hennepin county does not.”

DeCubellis and County Administrator David Hough said the programs could replace county funds with additional state or health plan financing.

District 4 Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley, whose district includes the University, said she would like to see the block nurse programs receive yearly funding in the county’s budget. 

“I’m not a believer that we balance our budget on the backs of poor people, vulnerable people, people who need us,” Conley said. “That’s not the way government is supposed to be working.”

Over the next month, county commissioners will hold budget hearings for other county departments and will approve a final budget in December.