Senior Center Faces Budget Crunch

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The Payson Senior Center, which has served as a social meeting place and support network for many of the town's elderly since it was founded in 1985, is caught in a vise-grip between rising needs and costs, and stable to weakening government support.

The possible outcome: It may have to shut its doors.

"Seniors in Payson need our services," center president Elaine Drorbaugh said. "There are many who cannot afford food and don't have any transportation."

The senior center, located at 514 W. Main Street, feeds lunch to between 50 and 80 elderly residents five days a week and transports food to an additional 50 seniors through the Meals on Wheels program.

"We ask for a donation of $3 for the meal but many of them don't have the money to pay," Drorbaugh said. "I see some ladies who bring a plastic bag so they can take half of their lunch home for dinner. It's very sad."

Although the food programs are the senior center's main service, other services include low-cost transportation to medical appointments or grocery shopping, as well as a variety of center-sponsored social activities, including aerobics, crafts, bridge and choir.

According to Al Campeas, the organization's treasurer for the past five years and a corporate chief financial officer before his retirement, the center is facing a $50,000 shortfall.

Meanwhile, needs continue to rise.

"It's our policy at the senior center to never turn anyone away," according to senior center director Marsha Cauley.

Costs are rising even more than the need for the center's services. "Last year, our insurance went up by about 27 percent, and we expect another increase next year," Campeas said. "The average cost of our meals is $7.70 and funding covers approximately $2.25 of that. The senior center pays for the remainder."

While the center requests meal donations of $3, many of the seniors cannot afford that much. "The average we get is still about $2, because some people can't put anything in," Campeas said. "The meals we deliver to people who are house-bound average $1 or less. We sent letters to possible sources in town -- businesses. We met with the town manager and chief financial officer and told them about our problems."

He also sent a letter detailing the center's financial situation to town officials earlier this month.

The funding squeeze is becoming critical for a variety of reasons: A substantial portion of funding for the center's food and transportation programs has been coming from the Gila/Pinal Council for Senior Citizens. With budget problems facing Gila County and the state, Campeas does not expect funding to meet the increased costs of expenditures associated with those programs.

The center has largely depleted the reserves it built up following the sale of a donated lot, which was sold for $101,000 in 1996.

The center's vehicles are getting older and are requiring more repairs.

In addition, the center has seen declining profits from its thrift store due to competition from other thrift stores in town.

The senior center operates primarily by the work of volunteers.

"The director, kitchen workers and drivers are the only paid staff. The rest are volunteers," Drorbaugh said. "We can always use more volunteers."

The town of Payson currently gives the senior center $7,900 per year. Campeas and Drorbaugh will be making a presentation before the town council within the next few months to be considered in the coming budget sessions.

Unless government, businesses, or the public step up to help with the center's serious funding gap, the center's officers and director see the outlook for the Payson Senior Center's services, and perhaps its existence, as somewhere between clouded and bleak.

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