By Curt Yeomans
Senior citizens, who have been fighting increased membership fees at Clayton County senior centers, won the battle over their pre-2011 membership contracts on Tuesday, but an overall victory remains elusive in their fee war with the county.
The county commission voted last December to raise senior center fees from $1 per year, to $12 a year, for in-county residents, and from $10 a year, to $180 per year, for out-of-county residents.
Officials said the increases were needed to offset funding shortfalls. The increases have brought protests from angry senior citizens at commission meetings since then. Seniors have been pushing for the county to honor unexpired, one-year senior center membership contracts signed in mid-2010, and for the fee increases to be rescinded. The Clayton Board of Commissioners voted 4-1, on Tuesday night, to honor the membership contracts, giving seniors a small victory in the ongoing fight over fees.
"The county will continue to honor those memberships of all members who have a receipt showing that they paid for a membership that covers the period of July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011," said County Attorney Michael Smith.
In addition to agreeing to honor existing membership contracts, the commission also agreed, as part of the same vote, to begin offering a monthly-fee payment plan for out-of-county seniors. Smith said the seniors will be able to pay $15 per month for out-of-county memberships, but they will still end up paying $180 per year, in the end.
"The fee structure will remain the same [with] $12 per year for in-county members," the attorney said. "For out-of-county members, the fee will also remain at $180 [per year]. They can pay that fee, either in $90 or $180 [payments], or they can go monthly."
They will also have to pay a one-time, $50 administrative surcharge for the monthly payment plan, Smith said. He added that the surcharge will be waived, however, if an out-of-county senior signs up for the monthly payment plan before April 15.
Like several commission meetings over the last two months, the public comment time on Tuesday night was dominated by seniors who pleaded with commissioners to lower the fees for the centers. Community advocate, Chuck Ware, lashed out at commissioners, saying that they pledged to help seniors during their campaigns for political office. He said the commissioners should stand behind the seniors, or face the wrath of the elderly at the voting booth.
"I remember you saying, 'Whatever is going to happen, there's a light at the end of the tunnel,' " Ware said. "Now, after watching all of the things that you all have been doing to the seniors, that ain't no light -- it's a train coming, and we better get out of the way ... We gotta get these people to let you know that we're going to back you up 100 percent, [or] get you out, if you're not for the seniors."
Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said he did not see the commission's decision as a concession to seniors, who have repeatedly addressed the commission at its meetings. Bell cast the lone vote against the commission's solution to the fee issue. "I was waiting to hear some concession, and one of our members did suggest a concession, but that wasn't the final determination," he said.
Bell voted against the fee increase last December, arguing that he felt it was too costly for seniors. It is a stance he re-iterated on Tuesday.
"I think the fee is high on our [out-of-county] seniors," he said. "Granted, they don't pay [property] taxes ... but many of them, while here, expend money in our facilities, restaurants, and other general businesses. I'm just not one to draw a line of this nature, where our out-of-county people could be relatives, friends, [and] loved ones."
Bell said he voted against the commission's action on Tuesday because seniors who use the centers were not consulted beforehand. "You ought to analyze this, and then, go openly speak with the seniors about it," he said. "Seniors are smart enough to know what they have to do, and I believe there could have been a buy-in that would have been satisfactory to ... in-county [residents], out-of-county [residents], and the government."