A day after the County Commission held a special meeting to approve restructuring services to the senior citizens of Churchill County, the Coalition for Senior Citizens held a special meeting Friday afternoon to approve the plan that will transfer all operations of the William N. Pennington Life Center to the Churchill County Social Services Department. The Coalition board agreed to the county request for an early termination of the lease between the county, which owns the Life Center, and the Coalition, and will transfer all budgets, funding, and grants to the county, effective July 1. Any grants that cannot be transferred to the county will remain with the Coalition, which will continue to serve in an advisory capacity to the Social Services department.
The county has appointed Bus Scharmann, former County Commissioner to serve as the interim director and oversee the transition process. According to County Commissioner Justin Heath, who serves on the Coalition board, Scharmann, along with County Manager Jim Barbee and Social Services Director Shannon Ernst will be at the Life Center Monday to talk with staff and seniors about the transition process. According to the timeline presented during the commissioner meeting Thursday, Scharmann will begin the transition Monday, June 14 by opening the position of Director, and the rest of what will become county staff positions will open Monday, June 20.
Perceived by current staff as a “hostile takeover,” the transition process will require any current Coalition employees to go through the county hiring process, and if hired they will become county employees and be enrolled in the Public Employees Retirement System. It was proposed during the commission meeting Thursday that Manpower would be utilized to transition employees, however, Heath proposed on Friday during the Coalition meeting, that current employees remain working for the Coalition as they are applying through the county process and Manpower be eliminated as part of the transition plan.
Buster Pierce, program services director urged the coalition to lay off the current staff. “You are our Board of Directors. Your job was so guide and protect us. You have failed, miserably, I might add. We ask only one thing, call another special meeting and organize a mass layoff for those who want it, and pay out the vacation hours that we have earned. None of my staff wants to work for the cesspool that is Churchill County Social Services.”
Several senior citizens were in attendance at the coalition meeting, having been contacted by Pierce during the day, expressing their fears for the continuance of the senior center services, and their great regard for the Life Center staff. Jerry Pace a patron of the Center said that Pierce has always gone above and beyond to take care of the seniors, even going out to one lady’s home to fix her swamp cooler for her.
Edna Christensen, who is 80 years old and appeared at the meeting using a walker was visibly shaken and said, “My life is going to be changed if you do this.”
Lisa Erquiaga, who has served as director of the Life Center since June of 2016, said, “we all have better things to do than attend a last-minute meeting on a Friday afternoon for the center to be totally dismantled, by a group of individuals, you know who you are, who have behind the scenes in totally secrecy, conniving to take over the Pennington Life Center to become a social services complex.” She said the Social Services Director is a player in the “empire building grudge against myself.”
Explaining that the senior center is not going away, Heath said, “All the services are going to stay the same or be enhanced, Meals on Wheels is not going away, we are just changing the operations, but the programs are still going to be there. All the talk that I’m hearing about it going away, I don’t know what lies have been told, but it is staying. Hopefully, we can keep everyone who applies.”
Echoing the comment by Commissioner Pete Olsen the day before, Karla Kent, Coalition board member and City of Fallon Councilwoman said that change is always hard. “I respect you all for coming out today and speaking, we are a community and I believe this is a good move. Things will be more efficient and I encourage all the current employees to apply with the county and I hope the hard feelings aren’t there but that they do apply and get on with a better pay scale and better benefits.”
Carol Seitzinger, a Coalition board member and longtime patron of the center whose husband Tom recently passed said the center has been her saving grace since he has been gone. Voting in support of the transition plan, she said, “I know how much we need this center, and I would not do something that would hurt the center or our seniors.”
The vote was 5-1 in support of the transition, with Robbie Lind voting no.
The Coalition for Seniors is 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.