Traverse City News and Events

Leelanau Considers Millage Increase To Meet Growing Senior Demand

By Beth Milligan | Feb. 9, 2018

Leelanau County has one of the fastest-growing senior populations in the state, with an estimated 40 percent of its residents now over 60 – an explosion that is forcing county officials to grapple with how to fund services for the group.

An ad hoc committee of county commissioners and staff met Thursday to discuss seeking a millage increase this summer to boost funding for Leelanau County Senior Services (LCSS). The department provides a range of programs and services for residents age 60 and older, including in-home services such as personal health and hygiene assistance, medication management, cleaning, and home and yard maintenance. LCSS also provides seniors with dental, eye glass, hearing aid, heating/utility, and legal assistance.

Leelanau County’s senior population has grown approximately a percentage point every year since 2014, when LCSS last successfully approached the public for millage approval. Out of a population of 21,765 countywide, 8,724 residents are seniors. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another community within the United States…that is increasing as fast as ours,” LCSS Director April Missias told commissioners.

That increasing demand for services has put a strain on LCSS’ budget. While the department receives $712,025 annually from its 0.275 millage – set to expire this year – LCSS has a current fiscal year budget of $773,396. The shortfall forced county commissioners to allocate $65,000 from the county’s general fund to the department last year and to direct LCSS to implement new criteria requiring seniors to go through income screening for in-home services. That screening process caused in-home client numbers to plunge from 128 before 2017 to 56 today. Missias attributes the drop to seniors either recognizing “their income is outside of the limit, or because they did not feel comfortable sharing their income or asset information.” Some seniors chose to pay for services out of pocket rather than disclose their income information, Missias said.

While a broad range of seniors access more generalized or indirect LCSS services, only two percent of the county’s over-60 population is currently taking advantage of the most intensive in-home or direct services. That leaves a potential major gap in care going forward, according to Missias. “That is the hard part in that this is the majority of our budget (caring for two percent of seniors)…and we can’t really go up based on the budget we have,” she said. Missias later told commissioners that “if we don’t change something, we’ll need to make additional service cuts. We’ll have to contemplate wait lists….you’ll have seniors feeling that seniors aren’t being cared for.”

Missias is recommending the county ask voters in August to approve increasing the millage to 0.3750, which would generate an estimated $989,631 annually. At that rate, the owner of a home valued at $100,000 would pay $37.50 each year to support LCSS, compared to $27.50 today. The increase would allow LCSS to stop “operating in crisis code,” according to Missias, and to expand services and create a collaborative network with other community nonprofits, health organizations, businesses and service providers to ensure a continuum of senior care. “We need to seriously think about what you want this department to look like, what kind of services you want, do you want to be reactive or proactive,” Missias told commissioners.

The LCSS director also outlined a litany of challenges facing senior residents: 80 percent of adults over 60 have at least one chronic disease, such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, heart conditions, dementia, Parkinson’s, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Almost as many – 77 percent – have two or more such diseases. “For seniors, unfortunately their body betrays them,” Missias said. Leelanau County poses additional challenges to aging adults because of the region’s geographic layout.

“Being a rural area, we have a number of seniors who are extremely isolated,” Missias said. That isolation not only makes it difficult for older adults to access resources and services, it can cause them to become socially withdrawn – a significant contributor to deteriorating health and mortality rates. While some of Leelanu’s aging population consists of transplants or retirees wealthy enough to pay for their own care, the county is divided into “the haves and have-nots,” according to Missias, with other residents living in poverty and having little if any disposable income to pay for essential services.

Leelanau County commissioners present at Thursday’s meeting – including Patricia Soutas-Little, Ty Wessell, and Will Bunek – expressed support for seeking a millage increase and bringing more stability to the county’s senior services. The group will meet with the full commission this month to discuss the proposal. Missias suggested pursuing a shorter two-year millage so the county “can monitor the trends” of senior service demand and costs and adjust accordingly with future requests. The commission faces a May deadline to submit language for a proposed millage request for the August ballot.

Leelanau County Administrator Chet Janik said trying to secure the appropriate funding levels for LCSS “goes back to a decades-old dilemma” of determining how best to balance service demand with available resources.

“In theory, you could probably double your budget and still not serve all the needs,” he said. “So where’s that fine line between services and being financially responsible and what the voters will support?”

Pictured: Leelanau County Government Center

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