Cortland County legislators voted Thursday to defund almost all its senior centers — reverting to a grant program instead — except for one central hub in the city of Cortland.
Cortland seniors will have their own space for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic, but members of the seven outlying centers will have to decide whether to commute to the city or apply for grants of $8,500 or $11,500 to run centers on their own.
The vote was without opposition; legislators Ron VanDee (D-Cortland), George Wagner (R-Lapeer, Marathon) and Kelly Preston (UHomer) were absent.
“It’s been 17 months since our senior center was closed,” said Gary Mead, president of the Cortland Senior Council. “COVID has been very hard on our senior population.”
As seniors were vaccinated, attempts to get together increased in early spring. The Cortland seniors met at the American Legion and the St. Charles Hotel.
“Restarting the excitement, joy and happiness was amazing and exceeded our expectations,” Mead said. Gesturing to the legislators’ desks, he said, “You have before you the recommendation of the search committee for the new center. You have the opportunity to recreate the excitement, joy and happiness.”
But the reaction of seniors in other communities might not be gratitude.
“Some day you’re going to be a senior, and you’re not going to be able to vote,” John Carroll, 84, of Virgil, told legislators. “Or maybe one of the seniors in the area says to you, ‘Where’s my senior center?’ ‘Oh, we voted that out in 2021.’ Ask yourselves who you represent here tonight. Don’t be tightwads.”
Rather than provide the centers, the county will issue grants for the seniors to run the programs themselves, saving the county $200,000 or more a year in reduced payroll.
“We’re not weakening what we’re investing in the seniors,” said Legislator Ann Homer (D-Cortland). “We are trying to spend more money going directly to the seniors and not to the administrative and staffing costs — of the $533,000 budget, less than $100,000 was actually spent on direct programming for the seniors. This is giving the opportunity for the municipalities or other groups who apply for the grants to make the program that fits for them.”
“We know that what works in Scott may not work in Willet, and may not work in Truxton,” Homer added. “Most of the folks that we met were very excited about this option — we know we’re going to have to hold their hands a little bit, and give them some help and guidance, but I think this will be a successful program.”
Carroll said his fear would be seeing veterans, who sacrificed for America, not be able to go to their local senior centers, and the seniors weren’t able to run the programs on their own.
“They came back from wars and then paid taxes in tens of thousands of dollars over the years,” Carroll said. “Well, we did away with their centers, and saved a nice couple hundred thousand dollars. What a great deal. Please, please don’t be one of those people that say our seniors have been forgotten.”
“We have received critical commentary about the expense of this program before, from the Comptroller’s Office,” said Legislature Chairman Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton) in his State of the County Address.
That was 2011, when the state audit said the Area Agency on Aging was overspending on its nutrition program.
The Legislature voted without opposition to approve the county’s leasing of a 2,200-square foot suite in the Crescent Commons building at 165 Main St., and also approved the agreement with Cortland Transit and taxi companies to help seniors travel into the city.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the process and the decision legislators made.