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Pocahontas senior citizens programs reduced by budget cuts

The demographics of the State of West Virginia are of great concern to politicians and others in state government. The state’s loss of population is of concern to those dealing with workforce, employment and economic issues. The increasing age of the state’s population concerns those working in senior health and welfare programs. Rational decisions are expected based on demographic changes.

The population of senior citizens in West Virginia is increasing, both in absolute and proportional terms. The percentage of the state’s population over age 65 was 16 percent in 2014, but is expected to increase to nearly one in four state residents by 2030. The current percentage of West Virginia’s 1,850,000 residents over age 65 is about 18 percent.

Last March, the West Virginia Legislature passed a budget for fiscal year 2015 that provided $2.28 million from excess lottery revenue for senior citizens centers and programs – an increase from the previous year of about $1 million. Despite the state’s increasing population of senior citizens, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin cut the $2.2 million appropriation by more than half, to $1 million.

A letter signed by Tomblin states: “This [$2.28 million authorization] is a significant increase over the FY 2104 appropriation and this line item has a substantial reappropriated balance available. At a time when we are facing ongoing budget challenges, it is imperative that a cautious and prudent approach be taken to avoid growth in the State’s base budget. Therefore, I am reducing this appropriation by the amount of $1,284,750 to $1,000,000.”

The Governor left untouched other line items, including an appropriation of $2 million for “special breeders compensation,” which benefits the horse and dog racing industry.

In 2010, Pocahontas County had 2,034 residents over the age of 60, which qualifies them to take advantage of local senior programs. Pocahontas County Senior Citizens, Inc., operates senior centers in Marlinton, Green Bank and Hillsboro. The Marlinton and Green Bank centers are open five days a week; the Hillsboro center just two days a week.

John Simmons is the Director of Senior Programs for Pocahontas County.

“The baby boomers are coming onboard and, naturally, we’re getting older in the county,” said Simmons. “Young people have to leave, so that makes the ratio of seniors higher. Plus the fact that we have people retiring and moving back to Pocahontas County, which is a good place to retire, but that adds to the percentages.”

In addition to more clients, rising costs make the budget cuts hard to bear.

“The higher price of food and the higher price of vehicles and tires is making it tough,” said Simmons. “A couple years ago, a tire for one of our vans cost $80. Now, they’re $140.”

Money from the state and federal governments are distributed to the West Virginia Bureau of Senior Services, which distributes money to senior programs in 55 counties.

Simmons said he had trouble understanding the budget cuts.

“Costs are getting higher all the time and the allotment’s going down,” he said. “It’s a very difficult thing to understand. The Legislature – they did what they could for us and they put the money in there for us – and the Governor cut it, which he has the right to do. But they could override his veto with 60 percent, if they want to do it.”

Delegates Denise Campbell and Delegate Bill Hartman dipped into a special fund to provide some help, but those funds are for specific uses.

“The money that we just got the other day from Campbell and Hartman is earmarked for renovations,” said Simmons. “Building renovations, building equipment, dishwashers – that type of equipment. That doesn’t help our bottom line, but we appreciate getting it.”

Simmons said the Bureau of Senior Services spread out budget cuts over two years.

“We’re $24,000 in the hole until July 1,” said Simmons. “We were $18,000 less than what we needed last year. We can’t continue to operate spending more money than what we have. It’s that simple.”

Food is the local senior program’s biggest expense. The program serves low-cost meals at the senior centers and also delivers meals to homebound seniors with the Meals On Wheels service. Meals cannot be reduced because the program operates under a contract with the state to provide meals. Other optional activities have been reduced because of the budget cuts.

“We’ve cut back on our shopping trips that we provide,” said Simmons. “The overnight and day trips that we used to make, we’ve cut back on that. We try to double up and maybe take two people on a medical run to save a trip. We even turn out part of the lights in the senior center to save on our power bill. Anything we can think of to save a dollar, we have to do it.”

Simmons urged concerned residents to contact their local officials and ask that senior programs be fully funded and that cuts be made elsewhere.

“The bottom line is that we need enough appropriated funds, through the state and federal government, to maintain the senior services in Pocahontas County and be able to expand and meet the demand of more and more people asking for our services,” he said.

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