County commissioners and employees say Newton County Senior Services is an effective, quality program, but they also believe it can improve and are considering reorganization amidst questions of Senior Services’ hierarchy, funding and future.
In 2006, the Newton County Board of Commissioners converted Senior Services from a county department to a non-profit organization, with it’s own 501(c)3 board of directors, to allow Senior Services to become eligible for and receive more grant and donation money. For the past three years, Senior Services has operated as a non-profit, but the county has appropriated money to it and its employees have remained county employees.
A few years ago, Executive Director Josephine Brown said, many organizations that donated money or gave grants, like the United Way, General Mills and Snapping Shoals, starting requiring that any money recipient be an official 501(c)3. So in order for Senior Services to keep receiving its previous grants and apply for new grants, the organization would have to change.
Now BOC is reconsidering that decision and Senior Service’s current organization. On Aug. 18, the BOC held a work session to learn about the purpose and function of Senior Services at the request of commissioners Mort Ewing, Nancy Schulz and Tim Fleming. Each commissioner appoints a representative to the Senior Services BOD. Ewing and Fleming’s appointed BOD members, Ann Brewer and Jane Atkinson, recently resigned after several years on the board.
Ewing and Fleming were asked to appoint new members, but both said that their members expressed concern about how the BOD was operating, and the commissioners wanted a work session before they moved forward. As a result of the vacant seats, the BOD has only had one official meeting, because it did not have enough members for a quorum the last time it tried to meet.
Both Brewer and Atkinson said they resigned mainly because they wanted to devote their time to other activities, not because of any particular dysfunction on the BOD. However, Brewer did say that at times the expectations of the board were unclear and she noted that the early stages of a board’s existence were always the most difficult.
In addition, Schulz’s member, Liz Loescher, newly appointed in 2009, has expressed confusion about her role as a BOD member.
Everyone interviewed for this article, including commissioners and all five BOD members, said the issue was with the role and function of the BOD, not the leadership of Senior Services Executive Director Josephine Brown, who has built up Senior Services over the past 39 years.
At the work session, Ewing, who was on the original BOC that set up the new Senior Services organization, said he was concerned about the fact that the Senior Services employees were reporting to the volunteer BOD and not the BOC. He said Executive Director Josephine Brown should be reporting to the BOC.
“In 2006, Mrs. Brown asked us to establish a 501(c)3, so that companies could donate money to the senior program and receive a tax deduction from the federal government. That was the sole purpose of establishing a 501(c)3, and I thought it was a good idea … I thought that we would still have the same organizational chart; I thought (Brown) would still report to the chairman of the BOC, because she is still a county employee,” Ewing said Aug. 21.
“I’ll plead ignorance or guilt or whatever that I didn’t realize that in addition to making it possible for companies to donate to the program we were going to have county employees reporting to board of volunteers. The BOC is not part of the organizational chart, which is a problem because the BOC is in charge of the program,” he added.
BOD Chairman Benny Phillips said at the work session that Brown does report to BOC Chairman Kathy Morgan in addition to the BOD. Morgan said Brown met with her in the same fashion as other department heads.
While Ewing initially thought the BOD would only be responsible for raising money, Schulz said that kind of organization would make her uneasy.
“We are at a point now where that organizational structure needs to be very clear and functional. Right now there is the sense that it is not functioning the way the bylaws designed it to function. I’m very uncomfortable with a 501(c)3 being created strictly for the purpose of raising funds. It’s just not ethical in my opinion. If we have a 501(c)3 operating, it should be for the purpose of helping operate Senior Services, not just as conduit for money.”
No BOD members spoke at the meeting, but Atkinson, who was on the board from 2006 through earlier this year, said on Wednesday that the BOD acted like most other boards. They reviewed and approved budgets, talked about current programs, discussed ways to expand senior programming and discussed critical issues like how to provide transportation for seniors around the county. Atkinson said Brown would ask the board for advice and direction, and BOD would help out with senior center events.
However, Atkinson said the board members were not directly involved in seeking out grants or putting on fundraisers. The question of whether the board members were supposed to be active in this area was raised at the work session. Atkinson said that this should perhaps be a future goal, but it was not a focus on previous boards.
Atkinson said when she was first appointed to the board, she understood her role; she was basically a representative for her commissioner and the BOC was supposed to be the main authority.
“We were the board member’s delegates. We had certain powers, but it was also very clear that we were not acting on our own; we were working through our commissioner,” Atkinson said. “I had several conversations with (former commissioner) Monty Laster, where I would call and ask him what do you think about this. Is there money to do this or that? I always felt like I was very aware that I was an agent of commissioners.”
Atkinson said part of the reason for the confusion may be that the board is relatively young and has experienced a lot of turn over, while at the same time the elderly population is increasing significantly.
Loescher, who was appointed by Schulz this year, said she has been confused about her role, because she’s only been able to attend one board meeting so far this year and didn’t have any job description to work from.
“It’s not plain what we’re supposed to do. Josephine has one thought in mind, and it’s a good idea, she wants the board to raise money. But the fact is it’s impossible to raise money if we don’t have all the systems in place to be real clear about the budget, goals and objectives and all the needs of the organization. That info is not at all clear, at least not to me, but maybe that’s because I’m brand new,” said Loescher, who has worked with several non-profits before. “I think the structure is quite muddy about whether we’re operating as a government agency or as a non-profit.”
At the work session, James Griffin, an attorney in County Attorney Tommy Craig’s office, said that he recommended that the BOC formalize its relationship with Senior Services and its BOD, which would likely be in the form of a lease/operating agreement, because Senior Services leases a county building.
Schulz said the operating agreement is a good idea, but the commissioners still need to decide whether Senior Services will be a separate agency or be absorbed back into the county.
The overarching goal is to improve senior services. Everyone agrees that the current center at Turner Lake Complex provides many good services: educational classes and workshops about computers, nutrition and other subjects; recreational activities like ceramics, field trips and dancing; exercise classes like water aerobics and walking club; and a variety of other support services for seniors.
Brown said many people had a misconception that the senior center was similar to a nursing home, but she said she wanted to emphasize that it’s for independent, self-sufficient seniors. She said the goal of the center is to keep those seniors healthy and independent as long as possible.
All of the commissioners and board members said there was a growing need for services, because of increasing 60-plus population. Brown said in particular seniors want to see more exercise facilities and classes, but limited space and money was preventing the center from meeting the needs of more seniors. And everyone agreed that’s why the future of senior services is so important.