I don’t usually attend meetings anymore. I hate them. Nothing much ever gets accomplished and I have grown weary of watching people lie to my face. I prefer to get my lies indirectly; i.e., from the media.
Last night was different, though. My county has run into a significant budget shortfall (read: mismanagement and malfeasance) and must find a way to cut the 2014 budget by some $75 million. And this time, unlike in prior years, the budget sharks are circling the previously unmolested services for senior citizens.
The county I live in operates four impressive multi-purpose senior facilities and 15 smaller neighborhood senior centers. I am lucky enough to live within walking distance of one of the larger, multi-purpose buildings.
On one side of the large single-story building is located an adult daycare center for citizens 55 and older who have disabilities that require them to have ongoing assistance. Special transport units pick them up in the morning and return them to their families in the evenings.
The side I frequent is designed for the same age group who do not have disabilities that interfere with their independence. Here is where I attend my 3x a week aerobic dance classes. In addition to fitness classes ranging from tai chi and yoga to core strengthening abdominal work, members can take water aerobics in the therapeutic pool; learn computer skills in an updated computer lab; learn beginning Spanish; take art classes; learn line dancing or hang out in the back room filled with billiard tables and a gigantic flat-screen TV. Breakfast and lunch are served for a nominal $2.00 per meal.
The only other time money is required from members is when they opt to attend one of the many field trips to state parks for hikes or plays in area venues which offer discounted tickets to seniors. Again, transportation is always included if more than 30 people sign up for an outing.
Now if the county were to suddenly shutter the place and/or cancel all of the classes I take, I would be disappointed but not devastated. I am rather reclusive and would be fine finding somewhere else to work out and continue to live my quiet life.
But there are many, many people who go to the center every single day of the week and spend the entire day there. They take their two main meals in the cafeteria/all-purpose room. They sit and chat among themselves. Some are in classrooms creating beautiful paintings, sculptures, needlepoint and tee shirts. One lady sits in the exact same chair every day crocheting things – one day it’s a table runner, next day it could be a baby coverlet. There are men and women in wheel chairs, amputees, one man who is recovering from a terribly debilitating stroke and people well into their 80s and even 90s.
For some of those people, changes in that center would be devastating.
So, when the commissioner for our district called a town meeting to discuss the possibilities looming, the center’s staff begged us all to make a sincere effort to attend. They are a great and dedicated bunch of public servants who truly care about our members. Sure, they are worried about their jobs, I suppose, but they are also worried about what will become of us.
So I showed up at the meeting expecting to hear my fellow members make statements about how much they want and need the services the center provides. I went in solidarity, not planning to say much, if anything at all.
Well. For whatever reason, the “commish” thought it was necessary to drag along a few friends. There was a full-fledged budget presentation delivered by the County Budget Director who spoke “budget” in the usual indecipherable way for those unfamiliar with budgets. And he spoke it in a thick, Nigerian accent that made the presentation entirely unintelligible.
I, however, being the relentless anal retentive that I seem to be, did a little homework on this budget issue prior to the meeting. I do speak budget. I managed many corporate budgets, some totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
I learned that the budget shortfall is being blamed on the Great Recession, which makes sense because the largest portion of the county’s revenue comes from property taxes. When the bottom fell out of the housing market in 2008-2009, property values plummeted and homeowners demanded to be taxed on the newer, lower valuations.
I also learned that while the economy was tanking in 2008, Georgia’s voters unwittingly approved plans to borrow $275 million to build and renovate libraries.
According to an article in the June 9, 2013 edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
The plans call for spending $167 million initially to build eight new libraries and expand two others. A second phase would involve spending $108 million to renovate 23 existing branches and build a new central library.
Since 2008 the county has been scouting locations and hiring architects and contractors. The May 30 groundbreaking for the Wolf Creek branch near College Park was the first for the new libraries, which are scheduled to begin opening in July 2014 and continue into 2015.
Despite persistent complaints by some residents that Fulton spends too much money, its libraries remain popular. Last year the county’s 33 branches drew 3.9 million visitors – up 5 percent from 2011.
“We have lines of people waiting to get into the library, especially on the weekends,” said Keisha Sawyer, president of Friends of the South Fulton Library. The branch is slated for an expansion in the first phase of library construction.
The voter-approved money will pay for construction and acquiring books and other materials for the libraries. But it won’t cover staffing and other operating costs when they open.
Fulton County, with 33 separate library buildings, has more libraries than any other county in the state…already. This portion of the budget was the largest by far of all the non-mandatory services. (Mandatory services are all related to the justice system and they dwarf the human services type expenditures.)
As it turns out, Commissioner Garner brought along with her the heads of services departments, one of whom was the library director.
Suddenly, I had something to say.
Questions had to be asked from the podium in the front of the room. When the time came, I was the first one out of my front row seat.
“My name is L…..I have two very direct questions.
The first is addressed to Commissioner Garner. I come from the corporate world. I have seen many of these kinds of meetings, where there is a pretense of taking input from the “clients,” when in truth it is just a procedural exercise to allow the leadership to check it off a checklist. My question is will what we say in this meeting make any difference whatsoever in the ultimate decision making?”
(Of course she said “yes.” She gave her word that she would be one commissioner prepared to fight for the seniors. Very sweet woman, but I didn’t believe her.)
My second question is for the Library Director. I know that the General Assembly of the State of Georgia, in their Republican wisdom, passed a law preventing any county to raise the property taxes for two years, so that avenue of new revenue is closed. Why haven’t the construction plans for new libraries been put on hold instead of going ahead with the construction knowing there will be no money to operate them?”
(She blanched. She said “that’s a good question.” Then she said we couldn’t have foreseen the shortfalls back in 2008. That’s all she said about the construction. Instead they are going to cut library hours!)
I was not allowed to follow up.
The last straw was when the new County Manager, who had been on the job for three weeks, came under scrutiny when a timid young woman stood at the podium and spilled the beans that she and the other temporary employees working in her division were told that their hours would be cut because of Obamacare. She asked why and he was compelled to try to answer.
He said that the rules of Obamacare required them to treat any employees working more than 29 hours per week as permanent employees. That would require giving them benefits, including healthcare. He said the rules of Obamacare were forcing them to cut hours.
I asked, out of turn, if he was planning to start reducing the number of full-time employees and replacing them with part-time to avoid paying healthcare and other benefits. Other people were shouting out about companies that are doing the same thing. His answer to me was yes, they are considering reducing the number of full-time employees to avoid paying healthcare. To which I replied, “that’s a very poor example to set for the county’s business owners. So much for fair employment practices.”
He was livid. He then ordered any other people in the audience who were employees of the county to reserve any questions about personnel matters for private meetings with him. The crowd murmured and some laughed.
And the sweet, politically astute County Commissioner ran to the podium and changed the tone.
Many of my fellow senior center members followed up with impassioned pleas to leave the senior centers alone. And another worthless, useless meeting came to a close. The County Manager was still seething when I passed him on the way out the door.