Street Talk: Sequester haunts Area Agency on Aging


Mark Schaafsma of Mark Schaafsma Design Build nabs a spot at the counter during the grand opening of the Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Holland last week. Maybe a career change is in the wind for one of West Michigan’s busiest builders? Probably not. Schaafsma, who served as general contractor on the Holland project, must have his eyes on the other 24 Five Guys shops planned for Michigan in the not-too-distant future.

It’s no secret that state and federal funding have been going down as the older population increases.

The Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan lost 6 percent of its federal funding in 2013 due to the so-called “sequestration” imposed by President Barack Obama’s administration in response to a tight-fisted Congress.

In July, the AAAWM board will have to consider its 2014 budget and what to do if funding shrinks again.

The vital services provided by the agency enables many older, low-income adults to continue living in their homes as long as possible, according to executive director Tom Czerwinski, and that should matter to taxpayers because the average cost of those programs per individual served is about $50 a day. On the other hand, it costs an average of $175 per day for someone to live in a nursing home, and in the case of low-income people, much of that cost is ultimately picked up by taxpayers.

The 2013 federal sequestration forced the AAAWM to dip into its reserves in order to maintain its level of vital services to the aging, such as Meals on Wheels, transportation to doctor appointments, respite for caregivers and other services that help low-income older people remain in their homes.

Meanwhile, the American population keeps getting older, even as state and federal funding shrinks. The portion of older adults “increased by about 25 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census,” said Czerwinski.

He noted the American population is heterogeneous and includes many older Americans who are healthy, relatively wealthy and able to pay their own bills in retirement. “But there is a significant number of older adults who are struggling, who just don’t have much money and yet they have health issues,” said Czerwinski. “They want to stay in their own homes, but they just can’t afford the services to make that happen.”

The cut in federal funding in 2013 probably reduced AAAWM services by about $200,000, which roughly equates to 4,000 fewer home-delivered meals. Its state and federally funded services help about 17,000 people a year in Allegan, Ionia, Kent, Lake, Mason, Mecosta, Montcalm, Newaygo and Osceola counties. The agency’s total annual budget is about $30 million.

Meanwhile, the state of Michigan’s funding for AAAWM was cut by 28 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to Czerwinski. Currently, the state and federal governments provide about the same amounts to the agency.

He said the board will probably vote in July to dip into its reserves again for 2014 in order to keep its services going. “But if there is another federal sequestration and there is another cut on top of what we currently have received, we probably won’t be able to cover that,” said Czerwinski.

Local first

Somewhere today, Mayor George Heartwell is smiling. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, because Hizzonor is in a perpetually good mood.

But the latest results of the annual Michigan State University State of the State Survey certainly contribute to that perma-grin.

According to the survey, Michigan’s citizens are more trusting of their local government than they are of state or federal government.

Thirty-nine percent of Michigan adults said they trust their local government “nearly always” or “most of the time.” Only 19 percent of those responding to the survey said they trust state government nearly always or most of the time, and just 15 percent said they trust the federal government nearly always or most of the time.

The latest SOSS results resonate as new questions surface about privacy and access to personal information, said Charles Ballard, State of the State Survey director and MSU professor of economics.

“Michigan’s citizens are somewhat wary of government at all levels, but they tend to put more trust in their local government than either the state or federal government,” said Ballard.

The SOSS, conducted earlier this year, included interviews with 1,013 Michigan adults.

U-M’s Michigan Public Policy Survey asked local officials the same questions about government trust earlier this year, and last week compared results with SOSS, Ballard said.

“Our surveys ask the same questions, but they show some sharp differences between local officials and the general public,” said Ballard. “Trust in the federal government is substantially lower among Michigan’s local officials than the Michigan public.”

A striking 59 percent of local officials say they trust the federal government “seldom” or “almost never.”

The two surveys found the biggest differences between local officials and the general public in trust of local government, Ballard said. While 39 percent of Michigan adults say they can trust local government nearly always or most of the time in the SOSS survey, 67 percent of local officials in the report say they trust local governments nearly always or most of the time.

In contrast, local officials and Michigan citizens — about 19 percent of each — are equally trusting of the state government.

The U-M study, conducted April-June 2013, involved surveys sent via hard copy and the Internet to top elected and appointed officials in all counties, cities, villages and townships in Michigan. A total of 1,350 jurisdictions returned valid surveys, a 73 percent response rate.

“While Michigan’s local officials may be heartened to know that the public trusts local government more than state or federal government, it’s also true that the public doesn’t trust local government nearly as much as local officials trust local government,” Ballard said.

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