The East Baton Rouge Council on Aging is seeking a dedicated tax to help fund the agency because state funding cuts could pare back or shut down some of its services, including Meals on Wheels and senior centers.
Council on Aging Chief Executive Officer Tasha Clark Amar said the tax proposal should be introduced to the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council later this month. If the council agrees to call the election, the property tax would be for 2 1/4 mills and would appear on the November ballot along with the presidential and mayoral elections.
“We’re going to let the seniors do the asking,” Amar said. “If you have anybody that has parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and they know the struggle and plight of the elderly, how can you say no? If you keep living, you’ll be there one day.”
Amar said she’s being forced to make a $15,000 cut to her $3.2 million annual budget between now and the end of June, when the fiscal year ends. All of her employees are working one day without pay, and she said she’s had to cut snacks to senior centers.
But the bigger problem would come in July, when the Council on Aging is bracing for a possible $552,000 cut from the state. The council receives other federal money, city-parish money and fundraising donations, but Amar said it is not enough to keep all of its services running.
A possible $552,000 cut would force the Council on Aging to close 14 of its 16 senior centers. It also would have to trim the number of homebound seniors who receive meals as part of the Meals on Wheels program, Amar said.
Meals on Wheels already is not meeting its demand. Amar said they deliver food to 530 people five days a week, but Meals on Wheels has a waiting list of 1,500 people.
The only way a spot opens up is when someone on the meal list dies, Amar said. She said people sometimes die while they’re on the waiting list.
She said the senior centers — where people go to socialize, eat, play bingo, do arts and crafts and more — are also in high demand. The Council on Aging has been asked to build more of them in places including Jones Creek and Port Hudson, Amar said.
The Council on Aging also oversees services where workers help seniors bathe, clean their homes, pick up prescriptions and groceries, and more.
If the Metro Council and voters approve the property tax, it would generate $7.8 million a year for the Council on Aging — more than double the agency’s current budget.
Amar said the extra money would go toward expanding services like Meals on Wheels, which she would like to include more seniors and be seven days a week instead of just five. The extra money also would make up for cuts the state is handing down, and the city-parish would yank its $877,000 general fund allocation to the Council on Aging if it receives a dedicated tax.
Amar said it actually should save taxpayers money to pay on the front end for seniors who can live independently. She said it’s more expensive when taxpayers are reactive, waiting for a senior’s health to deteriorate and requiring the person to be placed in a nursing home.
Getting Metro Council approval on dedicated taxes for ballots can be a difficult task. The Metro Council rejected letting a city-parish tax plan go to voters a year ago when Mayor-President Kip Holden and others wanted taxes to pay for public safety improvements, including a new jail.
Metro Council members also spent many weeks last spring threatening to shave the East Baton Rouge Parish Library system’s property tax, with some arguing that the public was overtaxed. The Metro Council narrowly allowed the library system’s dedicated tax to advance on ballots, and it easily won approval at the voting booths.
Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, who also is on the Council on Aging’s board, will bring the ordinance to the council and is likely to emerge as its biggest supporter.
Collins-Lewis said she realizes some people in the city-parish feel overtaxed but that keeping senior centers open is an urgent need.
“We’re moving along with it pretty quickly,” Collins-Lewis said.
Amar pointed out that a number of neighboring councils for seniors have dedicated property taxes, including those in Ascension, Livingston, West Baton Rouge, Pointe Coupee and St. Tammany parishes.