By Curt Yeomans
June Stewart expects to lose some of her friends at the J. Charley Griswell Senior Center when new membership fees take hold at the center on Jan. 1, 2011.
Stewart, 64, said she has made several friends at the center since she became a member there in 2006. The Jonesboro resident explained that she made these friendships through classes the center offers, such as line-dancing, and cooking. She said forging these friendships helped her overcome the grieving she went through after her husband died in 2005.
Many of the friends she met at the senior center live outside Clayton County, and will be affected by a fee increase, approved earlier this month by the Clayton County Board of Commissioners.
The increase in fees will raise the out-of-county membership charge from $10 a year, to $180 a year. In-county residents will also see their senior center member fee increase -- from $1 a year, to $1 a month.
Thirty senior center users protested the fee increases at the county commission's meeting on Tuesday. Several said either they, or their friends, plan to stop using the centers after the fees go up.
"A lot of people are losing a lot of friends, and this is affecting us emotionally, as well as financially," Stewart said. "I'm friends with everybody, and it hurts me. It really does hurt me. It's like a death in the family, on top of it being a nightmare, because my life, as I've known it for the last four years, has come to an abrupt end.
"It will never be the same again, just because the Clayton County Commissioners decided to do this increase," Stewart added.
The county commission approved the new fees, as well as a measure to increase breakfast and lunch costs, on Dec. 7, after county officials reported that $311,000 in grant funding was being lost.
Seniors who live, inside and outside of, Clayton County, told the commissioners they feel they are being targeted every time the county wants to make a budget cut.
Last year, the fees seniors had to pay to use recreation centers, which are open to people of all ages, went up from $10, to $15.
Some seniors, on Tuesday, said they took another hit from the commission when the county's C-Tran bus service was disbanded. "All of us feel that we have been attacked," said Oreatha Ensley, a Clayton County resident with a Hampton address. "Why the seniors? We're the ones who, at the least, don't have any revenue, or income, to be able to do this -- and we really feel that it's unjust."
Commissioners sat in silence after Ensley, the last of the seniors to speak during the public comment period, finished addressing them.
Ensley later said seniors, who are already living on fixed incomes, are now going to have to choose whether to pay for food, medicine or senior center fees every month, whereas the old fees were so low, they were not a factor in the decision.
After the meeting, several seniors, who live outside Clayton County, said they use the county's senior centers, rather than centers in their own counties, because they feel there are several more programs and activities available in Clayton.
Kevin Jamison, 50, a Henry County resident with a Jonesboro address, said a big concern for several seniors is whether, on Jan. 1, the county will honor the one-year contracts signed by seniors last summer, under the old fees. Jamison said he and several others have been trying to get county officials to answer that question, but have gotten no response.
"Everybody wants to know, are they going to honor that signed piece of paper on Jan. 3 [2011, when senior centers re-open after the holidays], or do we have to pay the new fees when we show up at the centers," Jamison said. "We shouldn't be forced to pay the new fees when we've already signed contracts that last through June 30, 2011."
Jamison said another concern seniors have is what will happen to them if vast numbers of out-of-county seniors quit coming to the Griswell Center, and the county's other senior center, the Frank Bailey Senior Center, in Riverdale. He said 450 senior center users, including both in-county, and out-of-county seniors, have signed a petition asking the commission to rescind the fee increases.
"They [out-of-county seniors] are the ones who get taxed," Jamison said. "If they quit coming to the senior centers, then where are they going to make up the money? The in-county residents are the people who are going to have to make up the difference."
Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, who was the only commission member to vote against the fee increase, said he believed Jamison was right about the county having to honor the membership contracts. Bell also said, however, that because it is a legal issue, he will have to get county attorneys to look into it.
He said he felt is was unfair to put the burden of the fee increases on out-of-county residents
"I think that's [seniors] the one group that we ought to protect" from budget cuts, Bell said. He later added, "What does the notion of senior discounts mean, if it's going to be based on where they live. Can I only get a senior-citizens discount at a hotel, if its a hotel in the county I live in? Being a senior ought to mean something, no matter where you are from."