Feeling betrayed and outraged

  • By Alexis Bacharach Enterprise editor
  • Wednesday, February 11, 2009 10:56am

City leaders betrayed the public trust, local seniors say.

Outrage best describes their reaction to a surprise decision by the Mill Creek City Council on Feb. 3 to offer the local senior program approximately 2,600 square feet in the City Hall Annex instead of supporting a community effort to build a senior center.

“Some of us have been at this for more the seven years,” said Mill Creek senior and former city councilman Ken Long of efforts to erect a dedicated facility for area seniors. “I don’t feel like backing down for something that’s second class and fails to meet our long-term needs.”

While the council pledged its support to seniors nearly six months ago, city leaders never promised they’d come up with a permanent solution.

The Mill Creek Senior Program, a satellite of the regional, Bothell-based Northshore Senior Center, has operated out of a 500-square-foot administrative office in the Washington State University Extension Center at McCollum Park for about a decade.

Until a year ago, the program had access to classroom space rent free in several locations throughout the community, but the troubled economy brought an end to that. Snohomish County and organizations like Northcreek Presbyterian Church are now demanding that the program pay for classroom and office space.

The Mill Creek Senior Center Foundation made an urgent pitch to the council in September, requesting a pledge of $2 million to help fund construction of a senior center on property owned by the Mill Creek Community Association.

The city, in exchange for its support, was offered access to space in the facility for parks and recreation programs at no cost and the facility’s maintenance and operation expenses would have been funded entirely by the foundation, according to the proposal.

But concerns with the foundation’s business model and the propriety of investing public money in a private facility prompted the creation of an advisory committee that offered up several options in January for housing senior programs.

Among them: temporarily locating seniors in the City Hall Annex, working with the county to build a new facility or renovate the extension center and McCollum Park or partnering with the foundation and the MCCA to build a new senior center.

Despite comments from the Community Development director and the city manager on Feb. 3 that the MCCA site was the best option for a senior center, the council decided by a one-vote margin to offer seniors space in the annex building.

“It’s not ideal,” Northshore Executive Director Lee Harper told seniors on Monday, Feb. 9, at an emergency meeting called by the senior program steering committee. “This is an option for now to move from no senior center to a location that will allow us to house more of our programs in one place. But we’re not going to accept the offer if the seniors don’t like the facility.”

The city is offering the annex space to seniors rent free for up to seven years, but Northshore would have to pay for phone lines, internet access and copier fees. In addition, Northshore will continue renting classroom space off site for fitness and dance programs as the annex building is not suitable for those uses.

“This isn’t the solution we wanted, but let’s think outside the box,” said Barb Athanas, who served on the senior center foundation as well as the city’s senior center advisory group. “This is probably a great place to grow — right next door to City Hall — to show the city the strength of the senior program and that the annex building can’t be a permanent solution.”

The city’s offer disappointed and shocked seniors who were told by council members on Jan. 27 that a decision would be made on Feb. 10 or 24. But more shocking to seniors: the council made its decision without knowing the costs associated with converting the facility.

City Manager Tim Burns said the city typically pays up to $5.50 per square-foot on tenant improvements — approximately $14,000 for the space being offered to seniors. However, Northshore administrators will spend two weeks conducting a parking study and comparing costs between the annex and the extension center before committing to the city one way or the other.

Until then, it’s unclear how much it will cost the city to lease and improve the space for seniors.

“It’s hard to believe,” Mill Creek senior Bev Lasswell said. “I’m really torn. On one hand, this does provide us more space. On the other hand, I’m afraid the city will never address our long-term needs. They’ve stonewalled this thing for way too long and I want to hold their feet to the fire.

“If we outgrow the annex building will we have to go through the same rigmarole we’ve going through now,” Lasswell asked.

Seniors, who toured the annex building on Feb. 9, shook their heads, saying the council intentionally kept them out of the loop.

“Seniors have been pushed aside in this community,” senior programming director Bill Durham said. “They need a contract from the city that (the city) will continue to look for a permanent solution for a senior center.”

Six of seven council members agreed on Tuesday, Feb. 10, that the annex building won’t serve the senior community much longer than three years.

“I’m committed to finding a permanent solution for our seniors in timely manner,” Councilman Mark Bond said. “I don’t see this going on for another five, seven years. I want our seniors to have their needs met within three years. That’s reasonable to me.”

But those who’ve been fighting for more than a decade to get better facilities for senior programs sighed in response to the councilman’s assurances.

In a city that invests millions of dollars in recreation services for young people, seniors feel marginalized.

“The city’s offer isn’t good enough,” Long said. “I want to put the council on the defensive … three or four of our current council members are up for reelection this year, and that’s important for us to keep in mind.”

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