By Doug Lindner
SOLON– Art Tellin said it best.
Representatives for Solon senior citizens were present at last week’s city council meeting to discuss the city’s ongoing support of the Old Gold Diner after the senior dining site’s decision to split from provider Elder Services, Inc.
“I don’t want you to think this was a rash decision, that we just pulled away from the government funding, because we lost it anyway,” Tellin said. “We’ve got to keep this center going.”
And the city stepped up to the plate with a $6,000 contribution.
Solon’s congregate meal site will end its agreement with Elder Services, Inc. at the end of the year and will begin serving meals prepared by the Solon Retirement Village instead.
But the move costs the local program funding from Johnson County, making it increasingly important for organizers to have the city’s wholehearted support.
The city has committed $2,500 for the program in the current fiscal year, and was asked at the Dec. 18 council meeting to increase the pledge for 2014-2015 to between $3,000 and 6,000.
Tellin, Sandy Hanson and Larry Meister (representing Solon Senior Advocates and the Old Gold Diner Site Council) told council members the new arrangement with the care center is expected to increase the number of days the Old Gold Diner serves meals, increasing the cost of the program’s site manager to about $9,000.
Solon Retirement Village is willing to cover approximately a third of the cost, they told council members, leaving $6,000 in expenses to fund.
Council members, themselves preparing for upcoming budget sessions, were supportive, and approved $6,000 in funding for the program.
It all started when budget cuts trickled downhill to the Solon program in October 2012.
Elder Services informed the site council of a 20 percent cut in funding to a seven-county area, which forced Elder Services to lay off staff and reduce its meal offerings. The cuts not only threatened funding for the Old Gold Diner’s site manager, but the way the meals were served as well.
Traditionally meals have been transported to Solon from Iowa City in insulated containers, and portions of food served onto diners’ plates by volunteers.
Without a site manager, meals were provided in pre-portioned, packaged plastic containers, similar to microwaveable frozen meals, known as the “Oliver” system, named for the company in Michigan which produces the equipment needed to package meals.
The Old Gold Diner subsequently sought funding from both the City of Solon and the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to help fund the site manager position and retain the home style method of serving meals.
“We lost nearly all of our attendees,” Tellin said of the switch to Oliver meals. “Nobody liked those. The portion size sometimes was smaller than a quarter-cup.” Some complained the dinners were too difficult to open, he said.
Tellin credited former mayor Rick Jedlicka for suggesting a partnership with the care center. “We learned, in fact, that they had once considered extending their food service to us,” he said.
The change to Solon Retirement Village as a provider will offer better nutrition, taste and quality, he said, and will support the local economy.
While the site has adequate funding for the current fiscal year, Tellin continued, organizers are worried about next year and the year after that.
“Somewhere there’s got to be some help for us,” he implored the council members. “And so we want you to remember us. We’ve got a good program.”
At the sponsored meal Dec. 18, he said, 75 people ate at the site and were entertained by Jay Proffitt and his stump fiddle. “And they had a ball,” he added.
“Solon has one of the finest senior programs of any of the surrounding communities in Johnson County,” said Meister, who has served on several county-level programs for older residents. “It’s the community of Solon that has always stepped up and done things the right way. You can just look at things around the community.”
The new relationship with Solon Retirement Village will save transportation costs and allow the Old Gold Diner to serve meals on federal holidays, something not possible previously, he said. “We’ll be serving more meals to seniors on more days than we have had in the past,” Meister observed. “Your continued funding is important to us because we’ve made a big step, folks, and it’s not something we can go back to. Our philosophy is that Solon needs to take care of Solon.”
Believe it or not, he told the council members, Solon has more seniors now than it had five years ago. And since the cut in funding, attendance numbers are on the rise. “What used to be five and six people, is now 15 and 20 people on a daily basis,” Meister reported.
Mayor Cami Rasmussen complimented the organizers on their efforts. “You guys are an innovative group, you’re a force to be reckoned with. You don’t take no for an answer,” she said. “I just love this whole idea of the community working together to make sure this program thrives.”
Council members, other than making sure they understood the dollar amount requested, had little to say.
Council member Steve Stange suggested placing funding for the Old Gold Diner under the city’s parks and recreation budget, noting there had been interest in helping provide senior programs such as the trips (organized by Solon Senior Advocates and promoted through the dining site) which are currently available.
But council member Brad Kunkel, agreeing the city could do more for seniors, felt the nutrition component made the program more of a social services budget item.
City administrator Cassandra Lippincott indicated the city’s current funding for the Old Gold Diner has come from the general fund, and would be presented as a line item for consideration in the next budget.