By Curt Yeomans
Out-of-county residents, who use Clayton County senior centers, will now have to pay $170 more per year to use those facilities, as they will have to carry the bulk of rate increases approved by the Clayton County Board of Commissioners this week.
In a 4-to-1 vote, commissioners raised membership fees, and breakfast- and-lunch prices, at the county's senior centers. The move was designed to help offset a $311,000 decrease in grant funding experienced by the county's Senior Services Department. Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell cast the lone vote against the increases.
The only other option was to take money out of the county's general fund to cover the decreases in grant funding, Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas told commissioners on Tuesday. He said the commission had asked the county's staff to look at all options last month.
"The options," he said, "were either to hit the reserve fund, to offset it [the decreased grant funding]" or look at the fees "in order to offset it, rather than dip into reserve funds."
With the commission's decision, everyone who uses senior centers can expect to see higher fees. The increases will hit non-county residents harder, eventhough residents will pay more, too. Non-Clayton County residents, who use the facilities, will see their membership fees go from $10 a year, to $180 per year, Cohilas said. That new out-of-county membership fee will be 18 times what it was before Tuesday's vote.
Clayton County residents, who previously paid $1 per year, will have to pay $1 per month (which amounts to $12 per year), Cohilas added. That means their new fee is 12 times as high as it was before Tuesday. Cohilas also said breakfast and lunch prices at the senior centers will go up by $1 per meal.
The revenue generated by fees paid by county residents alone is expected to increase from $4,700 a year, to $57,000 a year, Cohilas said.
After studying how many people use the senior centers, Cohilas said, county officials believe the increased fees and meal prices should cover almost all of the money that will be lost because of the shortfall in grant funding.
Those decreases include the non-renewal of a $250,000 state legislative grant for the county's Kinship Care program, and a $61,000 cut to an Atlanta Regional Commission grant, Cohilas told commissioners.
Those increases, in total, should generate an additional $306,000 in revenue for the senior centers -- if the same number of people continue to use them, Cohilas said on Wednesday.
"There are 4,700 Clayton County residents, and a little over 1,400 out-of-county residents using the senior centers right now," he said.
That would leave $5,000 to be covered in some other fashion, which Cohilas explained, could be earned by selling a la carte menu items in the cafeterias at the centers.
He said the fee-and meal-price increases were not originally included in the county's fiscal year 2011 budget, because officials did not know, at the time, that the grants would be cut.
Bell said he opposed the idea of increasing senior center fees and meal prices, because he felt it would be unfair to senior citizens to have them pay more money for anything during tough economic times.
"The state will continue to cut their grants and fees," said Bell, "and I'm bothered that each time they do that, because we set this precedent, we're going back to the seniors to ask them for more, more and more, when they're already having to make decisions between medicine and food."
Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph pointed out, however, that the county's current budget already required departments to do some belt-tightening. He also pointed out that out-of-county residents do not contribute to the county's property-tax base, which helps pay for programs in the county.
"We asked everybody to make sacrifices [in the fiscal year 2011 budget]," Ralph said. "We asked employees to make sacrifices. We asked citizens to make sacrifices, and the truth of the matter is that moving the fee from $1 a year, to $1 a month ... It's something that I think is reasonable.
"On raising the fee for out-of-county citizens -- people who don't live in the county, and don't pay taxes in Clayton County ..." Ralph added. "I think raising the fee on them is a reasonable option for us to do."