BOC 'evaluating' higher senior center fees

Senior citizens, who use Clayton County's senior centers, wanted answers earlier this week about fee increases at the centers. But when the county's senior services director responded Thursday, little new information was provided.

Seniors have been protesting the fee hikes that make fees 17 times higher for non-county residents, since the new prices were approved the Clayton County Board of Commissioners in early December. The new fees went into effect on Jan. 1.

On Tuesday, county attorney, Michael Smith, promised seniors that Clayton County Senior Services Department Director Mary Byrd would provide new information about the fee increases on Wednesday. A statement from Byrd was, instead, released a day later than promised — on Thursday –– and not much about it was new.

Byrd said the fee increases were necessary because of the loss of two grants used to fund the county's two senior centers, and the other option was to cut programs at the centers.

"We must also face economic reality, and the cost of those services must be covered," Byrd said, in the written statement. "We will continue to accept new members at the Jan. 1, 2011 rates, while the [Board of Commissioners] continues to evaluate what other actions are necessary."

Many seniors are not satisfied with Byrd's response, however, said Kevin Jamison, an out-of-county resident who has emerged as a spokesman for a growing group of out-of-county seniors. Jamison, a Henry County resident, with a Jonesboro address, is a member of the J. Charley Griswell Senior Center, in Jonesboro.

Under the increases, senior center membership fees for Clayton County residents increased from $1 a year, to $12 a year, while fees for out-of-county users went from $10 a year, to $180 per year. Meal prices at the centers also went up $1.

On Thursday, Jamison said several seniors still want to know whether one-year membership contracts they signed last summer with the county's senior centers are still going to be honored until their expiration date, which is June 30, 2011.

"We are not satisfied with their [Byrd's] response, because they haven't said, specifically, what is going to happen with the contracts," Jamison said. He said a group of seniors, who are not happy with the county's response, will meet this morning to discuss what they will do next.

At county commission meetings, there has been talk from some seniors of suing the county –– if it does not honor the existing membership contracts.

Byrd, in her statement, became the first county official to, outright, acknowledge the criticism the county has received for the fee increases, or that legal action might be brought against the county because of the issue. But, seniors have been publicly criticizing officials over the issue since, at least, Dec. 21, 2010.

On Tuesday, some Clayton County seniors said the steep fee increases for out-of-county residents were driving some of their friends — who do not live in Clayton County — away from the centers. The in-county seniors said they feared fees for Clayton County residents would also have to be increased dramatically, if too many out-of-county seniors quit using the county's senior centers.

On Thursday, a county spokesperson said county officials will not comment, outside of Byrd's statement, on the fee increases.