Voters asked to fund big increase in senior services


David Crisp/Last Best News

Bea Ann Melichar, director of the Adult Resource Alliance, said the campaign to increase funding for senior programs in Yellowstone County has been going well.

The population of Yellowstone County is getting larger and older. That’s the simple reason why, despite some disagreements on tactics, senior services groups are rallying behind a proposal for a 1.73 mill levy increase to support senior programs.

Voters will decide the issue during the June 7 primary election. If they vote for the new levy, property taxes on a $200,000 home would rise about $4.67 a year.

It’s the third time voters have been asked to support a tax increase for seniors. In 1996, voters approved a 1 mill tax increase for seniors. In 2006, voters backed another $225,000 a year.

When that first mill levy was approved, there were 16,361 people in Yellowstone County aged 65 or older. This year, the senior population is estimated at 25,568. In 20 years, it is expected to be more than 41,000.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the percentage of Montanans who are at least 60 years old is expected to increase 31 percent by 2030, well above the U.S. percentage increase as a whole of 25 percent.

The levy would increase funding for senior services by more than 73 percent and would double funding for some programs. In addition, it would create a contingency fund of more than $36,000 for unexpected needs.

In total, the mill levy would increase county funding for senior services from the current $788,568 to $1.37 million.

Both Bea Ann Melichar, executive director of the Adult Resource Alliance, and Denise Armstrong, executive director of Big Sky Senior Services, said they are hearing positive responses when they knock on doors around the county.

“When we’re out on the doors, we get a very positive response,” Melichar said. “We do hear from some who say, ‘No, I just can’t increase my taxes.’”

Armstrong agreed that the response has been largely positive.

“We feel really good about it,” she said.

Both acknowledged that they had encountered some resistance to the use of Hilltop Public Solutions to promote the campaign. Hilltop Solutions is a national firm whose Billings office is headed by Barrett Kaiser, a former adviser to former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. Hilltop managed a successful campaign to build the new Billings Public Library but also managed the recent School District 2 mill levy, which failed.

Some concerns were raised about the cost of using Hilltop, but the primary concern, Melichar said, was that Hilltop also was managing the school levy, which might interfere with work on the senior levy. Mill levy backers finally agreed to use Hilltop but cut its original contract in half to keep a low profile during the school levy campaign, Melichar said.

Hilltop receives $5,000 a month for its services, plus costs for design, printing and mailing, Melichar said. About 60 percent of those costs are being covered by donations, and more donations may still come in, but as much as $20,000 in reserve funds may have to be used to cover the cost of the campaign.

Hilltop was selected in part because of the uncertainty of Montana’s campaign finance laws, Melichar said. A federal judge this month struck down 1994 contribution limits on Montana campaigns.

Campaign laws have changed dramatically since the 2006 senior levy, “and we wanted to make sure we did everything right,” Melichar said.

Asked to comment on Hilltop concerns, Armstrong first said, “I’d rather not.” But she then agreed that funding for Hilltop had been cut back because of concerns about its involvement in the Yes for Kids school levy campaign.

The proposed senior mill levy includes an increase of more than a 50 percent in funding for the county’s eight senior centers.

“All of them have been struggling,” Melichar said. “They really have not been able to do much for seniors.”

The levy includes a 75 percent increase in funding for transportation to medical appointments and even just shopping. The MET Special Transit program alone, which operates through the city’s MET Transit service, has a 4 percent annual increase in requests for rides, mill levy materials say.

Substantial funding increases are included for volunteer programs, Meals on Wheels and marketing efforts involving the Senior News publication and social media. One goal is to increase awareness of the programs, which many seniors who need help don’t know about.

“We know that there are some needs out there that we are not meeting,” Melichar said.

Big Sky Senior Services would see an 84 percent increase in funding for its services, which include Senior Helping Hands, which provides care for low-income, isolated seniors in their homes; Prevention of Elder Abuse, which aims to protect seniors from abuse, neglect and exploitation, often from family members; and the guardianship program, which provides legal services after a court finding that seniors lack the ability to handle their own affairs and have no family member who can provide help.

The goal is to keep seniors out of nursing homes, where costs can run $7,000 to $8,000 a month. Big Sky Senior Services can provide a few hours of care a week for as little as $300 a month, Armstrong said. Seniors are charged for the services on a sliding-fee scale, she said, with 80 percent qualifying for a rate of $2 an hour.

Like Melichar, Armstrong said that demands for senior services are increasing rapidly. The Helping Hands program has 15 people on its waiting list, she said, and needs for guardians are often discovered only when a senior becomes ill and the hospital discovers that there are no caretakers to contact.

“It’s growing,” Armstrong said. “It is just growing by leaps and bounds.”

Armstrong said that although the mill levy seeks a large increase in funding, Big Sky Senior Services operates frugally, with respect for its use of the community’s money.

“We’re all very transparent about where the money goes,” she said.

Melichar said that providing care for seniors is one way to judge the overall health of society.

“Society is really measured on how they care for children and older people,” she said.

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