Tensions High for Agency on Aging

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead County Agency on Aging is at a crossroads. There’s a familiar call for a new facility among the clientele, who believe this is the right time to pursue the project.

The Flathead County Commission, however, has yet to officially endorse a specific plan, causing friction with those who say the senior population has waited long enough.

The AOA serves area residents 60 years and older with a variety of programs, including Meals on Wheels, transportation, senior home repair and legal services, among others. AOA also has six congregate meal sites, allowing seniors who are not homebound to break bread together.

The services are important to many of the Flathead’s senior population, AOA Director Lisa Sheppard said, especially with what the state Department of Public Health and Human Services calls the “aging tsunami” on its way.

According to the DPHHS State Plan on Aging, 21.1 percent of Flathead County’s population was 60 or older in 2010. By 2025, it is estimated that this percentage will increase to 26.8 percent.

AOA is already struggling to keep up with demand given its current facilities, Sheppard said. The current location on Kelly Road was meant to be a temporary home for the program when it moved there 10 years ago. Since then, several attempts to find a new place for AOA have failed.

The county has been paying $52,000 a year in rent for the current Kelly Road location. Sheppard stressed that the building, a red barn surrounded by industrial buildings, is not an inadequate structure in and of itself.

“It’s not that the building is a bad building, it’s just not a good fit (for AOA),” Sheppard said in an interview last week.

Some of Sheppard’s biggest concerns with the current setup deal with safety.

For example, the floors throughout are either tile or concrete, which can be slippery when wet. To avoid any falls, rugs have been taped down, but those tend to collect water as well.

The serving line for the food is also the pathway through the building, often causing delays and potentially blocking exits in case of emergency. Nearby, seniors must follow staff through the food storage area to four offices that the county built inside. Montana health code states that non-kitchen staff and visitors should not have access to food storage areas to prevent “potential contamination.”

Other safety concerns include the outdoor freezer area, the paths to which are often frozen over and dangerous for staff; an inadequate electrical system in the food service area; and other concerns, according to a Dec. 13 memo from Sheppard.

AOA staff and clients have learned to work around these issues, Sheppard said, but it’s likely that doing so for about a decade has enflamed some emotions within the senior population.

“They’ve been waiting a long time and they’ve seen the workarounds,” Sheppard said.

While the building has a second floor, Sheppard said she cannot put program staff up there because it is largely inaccessible for many clients.

A new, single-floor building would ideally allow the food program and the other programs enough space for safe access, she said. Sheppard said by having seniors stop by for meals, staff gets to know them and can help them access other programs that could help them.

“I don’t want to see us split up, for programmatic reasons,” she said.

An executive risk management committee comprised of county staff reiterated the safety concerns in the current building after a visit on Dec. 14, noting that if the building is kept as AOA headquarters, “expensive, major modifications would be necessary.”

The county rents the building from Alpine Business Center, co-owned by Mickey and Charles Lapp. In an interview with the Beacon, the Lapps said the county approached them roughly 10 years ago about the building, and in that time, the rent has increased twice.

Mickey Lapp worked on both commissioners Pam Holmquist’s and Gary Krueger’s campaigns for county commission, both of whom have expressed a desire to slow down the process for a new building. When asked, both commissioners denied any conflict of interest with the situation.

“I just want to help the county, I want us to remain fiscally positive,” Holmquist said. “I am an independent woman. I am someone that’s not going to let anyone pull my strings.”

Krueger said much of the same, adding that rumors suggesting otherwise make him a bit angry.

“I owe the Lapps nothing. I would never have owed the Lapps anything and they know I don’t owe them anything,” Krueger said.

Bruce Chadwick checks to see if he has the right number and dietary needs of desserts and milk match his order before heading out on his Meals on Wheels delivery from the Agency on Aging in Kalispell. Chadwick wore a sign to remind him to pick up frozen meals for the weekend and as a kind of teasing he fellow volunteers. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Mickey Lapp said there is no conflict of interest. After three, two-year leases, the past three-and-a-half years have been month-to-month leases, she said, and the rent reflects a 60-cents-per-square-foot rate when the market value would be a dollar a square foot.

“There’s nothing (for us) to gain. We’ve got a 30-day lease, which is absurd, and an under-market rate, which is absurd,” she said.

Charles Lapp said they have no problem with the AOA moving out of the building, but they would like a concrete idea of when. There is no security in a month-to-month lease, he said, but they are flexible with the county because they “believe in the program.”

Upgrades have been suggested and price-quoted, Charles Lapp said, but the county didn’t want to pursue the cost because it was understood that the building was only temporary.

Last August, county administrator Mike Pence sent a memo to the county commission about long-term needs for an AOA facility; in November, following an October presentation on new building possibilities, Pence sent another memo.

This memo outlined the pros and cons of a new building, specifically noting that the county could construct a building on county land at the fairgrounds that could hold AOA, the senior center, and 4-H and agriculture extension offices.

According to those who support the idea of a new building, the time is right. The funding is in place, with more than $2 million in federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) funds available, a potential $450,000 Community Development Block Grant in the works and possible loans with low interest rates available.

So why, supporters have asked at public hearings, is the commission not jumping at this opportunity?

According to Holmquist, the commission doesn’t oppose the idea, but there isn’t enough information available yet. The commission agreed to pursue an architectural review of several potential building sites, she said, and gave the OK to start the CDBG process. The grant application has to be approved by the City of Kalispell before it can move forward.

And while AOA may have been looking for a new place for 10 years, this specific plan hasn’t been in the works that long, she said, and there are no price tags or blueprints for the commission to look at.

“We are taking a good look at this. We are doing our due diligence,” Holmquist said. “I don’t want to have to redo this in two years.”

Once the architectural report is available, the commission will have more to base its decision on, she said.

Krueger, who took over former Commissioner Dale Lauman’s seat in January, said he understands the impatience from the senior community, but government isn’t meant to work this quickly.

“I’ve never seen county government work in such a quick fashion. This has all happened in four months,” Krueger said. “It’s impossible for us to know the things that we need to know and be educated that quickly.”

Krueger said he is looking at all options for AOA, including possibly outsourcing the food programs to private companies. But just because he is looking at it doesn’t mean it’s automatically going to happen, he noted.

“I will ask every question there is to ask. Is (food service) the proper place for government? Yeah, I asked it. If you’re going to be a commissioner you better ask as many questions as you can think to ask,” Krueger said.

In contrast with the majority of the commission, Commissioner Cal Scott believes the time to act is now, and that his board should rely on the county’s hired expertise to parse the details at this point.

“I think it’s absolutely irresponsible and ludicrous to drag our feet any longer on this,” Scott said.

Whatever the commission decides to do, Sheppard hopes it will be with the county’s senior population in mind. They want to interact with their community in the best way possible, she said, and are more active than ever before.

“The discussion is more than just about walls,” Sheppard said. “It’s about do we as a county value our senior citizens? Do we want to provide something that meets their needs?”

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