County commissioners discusses senior services

January 25, 2023

Dr. Kim Halladay addresses the county board of commissioners

County commissioners discusses senior services

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

PERE MARQUETTE TOWNSHIP — How will Mason County take care of its aging population? That was the topic of discussion Tuesday evening during a work session of the Mason County Board of Commissioners. 

During the meeting, the commission listened to presentations by Dr. Kim Halladay, a member of the Mason County Council on Aging, and Kendrick Heinlein, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan (AAAWM). The commissioners also discussed the job description for a new part time senior services position. 

Mason County is one of nine counties that are part of the AAAWM, which is funded through the state and federal funds provided through the Older Americans Act. The other counties include Lake, Osceola, Newaygo, Mecosta, Kent, Montcalm, Ionia and Allegan. 

In presenting data from the 2020 Census, Halladay said Mason County’s population is 29,383 with 7,462 (25.4%) of that population ages 65 and over. That number is likely higher because of seasonal residents who have permanent residences elsewhere. The U.S average of population ages 65 and over is 16.8% and the Michigan average is 18.1%. With the exception of Lake County (30.7%), Mason County has the highest percentage of seniors within the AAAWM region. 

During public comment, Ludington City Manager Mitch Foster said while that percentage is accurate, it is not a fair comparison, as several lakeshore counties in northern Michigan have a high percentage of seniors and Mason County is the only lakeshore county within the AAAWM region. In 1980, Mason County’s senior population percentage was 14.9%. Halladay said much of this change can be attributed to the aging Baby Boomer generation. 

Though Mason County has the highest percentage of seniors among the other counties in the AAAWM region, it also has the lowest millage rate supporting seniors. The current Council on Aging millage is .3 mill. The average millage rate for the nine county AAAWM region is .6 mill. Compared to neighboring counties, it is also the lowest: Lake County, .65 mill; Manistee County, .468 mill; and Oceana County, 1 mill.

Also unique to Mason County, compared to the neighboring counties is that Mason County’s four senior centers are each autonomous from county government. The Ludington Area Senior Center is operated by the City of Ludington. The Scottville Area Senior Center is operated by Mason County Central Schools. The Tallman Senior Center and Free Soil Senior Center are each operated by independent non-profit entities. Additionally, the senior meals deliver program (Meals on Wheels) is operated by Mason County Central Schools. Each of those entities receive funds from the county paid through the Council on Aging millage. Additionally, the senior centers in Scottville and Ludington, along with the senior meals program receive funds from AAAWM, as a result of grant applications. A small amount of Council on Aging funds are also distributed to HELP Ministries for transportation. Ludington Mass Transit Authority receives funds from AAAWM as well. 

The Council on Aging (COA) is a seven member board appointed by the county commission. Board members include Wally Cain of Ludington, Randy Belair of Hamlin Township, Kim Halladay of Pere Marquette Township, Mary Bedker of Summit Township, and Lyle Hanson of Branch Township. There are currently two vacancies on the board. 

Bedker, who is chair of the COA initially addressed the county commissioners. She said she wanted to clear up some misconceptions of the COA’s recent intentions of studying senior services in Mason County. 

She said one of the misconceptions is that the COA wants to build a new senior center in Ludington. She said that is not true. She acknowledged that a separate citizen’s group has been discussing the feasibility of a community center in Mason County but the COA is not involved with it, though COA member Randy Belair is involved in the community center discussions. 

Additionally, she said the COA does not want to centralize all senior activities into Ludington. 

“Our senior centers and Meals on Wheels are independently operated,” she said. “We just want to do some more and better things for the seniors in Mason County.” 

Halladay said the other counties in the AAAWM region and across the state are commonly guided by a staffed commission on aging that provides citizen leadership to address issues associated with its agin population. 

“Such commissions on aging possessed clear responsibilities, requisite authority, required expertise, sufficient capacity, and adequate financial resources to discharge their duties,” Halladay said. 

Halladay said an assessment of current senior services and senior needs is important in order for the COA to move forward. He said the COA is recommending a framework for an accountable system for allocating Mason County senior millage funds, which is why the county commission is considering creating a senior services position. 

Halladay said the senior centers are only part of the issue of meeting seniors’ needs. He said one of the biggest issues is housing. 

“We need to Expand our county’s stock of decent and affordable housing resources for older adults,” he said. “This includes retrofitting homes to address safety and mobility limitations that aging engenders.” 

Halladay said the community’s workforce needs to be developed to meet the concurrently existing caregiver needs of children and older adults. 

An alarming example of the county’s reduced workforce is that Oakview Medical Care Facility, which is funded through a county millage, had to recently reduce its maximum bed capacity from 96 to 72 due to the lack of staffing. Halladay said the higher percentage of seniors versus adults in the workplace will continue to increase unless the county makes efforts to recruit more younger residents. 

Halladay said the COA would like to propose an access-to-services model that assures older adults and their stakeholders seeking services will find the experience uncomplicated, effective and customer friendly. It is recommending a reporting process that ensures funding entities, such as the County Board of Commissioners and the COA, are continuously informed regarding the older adult services being provided in Mason County. 

Following the presentations, the commission discussed the job duties of the proposed system. Some commissioners expressed their concerns that there is currently not a consistent accountability system of how the county funds are being used in each of the organizations that provide senior services. 

County Administrator Fabian Knizacky was instructed by the commission to work on a job description that focuses on accountability of funds, collaboration of the senior services, and assessment of services. The position would begin at 20 hours a week, though some of the commissioners, along with members of the public, expressed a concern that the maximum hours allocated are likely not enough for such a position. 

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