In a special meeting on Thursday, Churchill County Commissioners agreed unanimously to a restructuring plan for the services offered to senior citizens in Churchill County making the county the overseeing agency for senior services and the William Pennington Life Center facility.
Historically, the Coalition for Seniors, a non-profit organization established in 1991 has functioned as the public governing board for the Life Center. Appointed by the County Commissioners, the Coalition is made up of Chair Jill Manha, Vice-Chair Robbie Lind, Secretary/Treasurer Jamie Hyde, City of Fallon Councilwoman Karla Kent, Julie Richards, Carol Seitzinger, and Commissioner Justin Heath.
The Life Center operations and programs are funded through the ad valorem tax at the rate of $0.06 which is apportioned to county residents at 2.10% and city residents at 1.64%. Additionally, the Life Center is financially supported through grants from the Nevada Aging and Disability Services Division, Nevada Extension/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education, and contributions from local citizens, businesses, community organizations, and proceeds from ongoing fundraising projects. Currently, the Coalition leases the WNP Life Center building from the county.
County Manager Jim Barbee and Social Services Director Shannon Ernst presented an overview of the plan and proposed a structure that would move the Coalition to an advisory capacity, working closely to ensure the needs of local seniors are met. He said the restructure will make use of funds available through the federal government that has come to the state due to COVID. The county has tapped Bus Scharmann, former Commissioner as the Interim Manager who will begin Monday, June 14 to work with current Life Center staff members on a transition plan that includes providing an application process for them to apply for county employment. All current Life Center employees will have to re-apply through the county employment process for the new positions. On Monday, the position of Senior Center Manager will be posted, and the remaining positions will be posted on June 20.
Under the existing contract between the Coalition and the county, the lease is severable with a 60-day notice. During the meeting Barbee said part of the restructuring plan is to request early termination of the lease, effective July 1. If the Coalition does not agree to the early request, the lease is scheduled to expire in mid-August.
On July 1, current employees at the Life Center will transition to Manpower to allow for time to complete the application and hiring process. Nevada State Aging and Disability Services will provide support to the county to transition existing grant funding.
Barbee said the reason for the transition is to provide expanded services to community seniors. “What we’re trying to do is expand the opportunities and resources we have for our seniors in our community. This past year has been really difficult and challenging but left us with some unique opportunities in the county in the resources that have been put forward for the health and human services which give us an opportunity to do things we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.” Barbee said the change in the fiscal year July 1 is driving the expedience of the decision.
Ernst said that increased services would include Resource Liaison services for hands-on service coordination and services to the homebound population, guardianship to coordinate with Adult Protective Services, Community Health Nurse services including vaccines, health monitoring, and education for in-house visits and homebound clients. A medical center was built into the Life Center which would support the nurse in the facility five days a week. Also increased would be telehealth services, senior activities, and a strengthened partnership with Social Services for housing, food security, and other independent living needs.
During the January 2021 meeting of the Coalition, the board discussed and established goals for Executive Director Lisa Erquiaga to work towards during 2021. During that process, the goals of the Life Center were discussed as well, in an effort to align the two.
The board and Erquiaga prioritized five of her twelve goals that were presented for the year as the March for Meals fundraiser; update the WNP Life Center personnel policies and job descriptions; search for grants, develop new programs, and add new employees; provide training opportunities to the board at mini-workshops; provide program highlights to the board during future meetings.
Many of the Life Center staff were in attendance and spoke during public comment, supporting the current operations, and expressing fear over the possibility of losing their jobs. Former County Commissioner and husband to Director Lisa Erquiaga, Carl Erquiaga, began saying, “The most appropriate thing I can think to say now is ‘et tu brute,’ you’ve taken the knife and put it in Bus Scharmann’s hands. Welcome to the coup, everyone, that’s what’s going on here.”
Buster Pierce, program services director said the decision feels rushed and punitive, driven by political motivation. He said that when COVID hit and the Life Center was closed on March 12, 2020, and the next day staff was prepared to deliver meals, take and make calls to seniors, help provide vaccines, serve 80,000 meals in 14 months, and provide tons of food boxes to the needy in the community.
“We have an amazing staff, from the director on down, always going the extra mile for the seniors,” he said. “I want you to realize what an upheaval this has caused. I have a lot of worried freaked-out staff on my hands at the moment.”
Phyllys Dowd, who has a contract with the Coalition to provide consulting services said she sees the operational benefits to this decision, but her heartburn comes with the speed this process had taken. “I don’t understand the rush.” She expressed her concern that the financial study has not been done. “If you haven’t done your analysis, how can you move forward to make this decision today.”
Karla Kent, City of Fallon Councilwoman and a member of the Coalition, attended the meeting on behalf of Mayor Ken Tedford who was unable to attend. Kent said, “He wanted me to convey to you today that he is in support of this action.”
Commissioners approved unanimously the plan which included transferring all operations of the WNP Life Center to the Churchill County Social Services Department, terminating the lease with the Coalition for Senior Citizens, transferring all accompanying budgets, funding, and grants to the county, and authorizing the appointment of interim manager.