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Senior center sees tax as answer
By ROBERT FARLEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000
PALM HARBOR -- When it opened six months ago, the Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center was meant to be a self-sustaining haven for the elderly.
Instead, the center's fees and expenses threaten to turn it into a "country club for the rich," center administrators say. To prevent that, they plan to ask Pinellas County officials this week to let Palm Harbor residents vote in a referendum this fall on whether to support the center with a tax subsidy.
Senior center president Jerry Hooker said the center is struggling because many seniors on fixed incomes cannot afford the current program fees and $25 annual membership dues.
The center is also understaffed, he said, making it impossible to stay open in the evenings and on weekends. Its paid staff consists of executive director Irene Rausch, her full-time assistant and a part-time secretary.
"If we are to maximize the use of the building, we have to have more staff," Hooker said.
In addition, he said, the sheer size of the building -- 15,000 square feet -- makes utilities and maintenance expensive.
"We didn't ask the county to build such an elaborate building," Hooker said in an interview.
"But we appreciate it," Rausch quickly added.
Rausch said it became apparent shortly after opening that the center could not exist -- as originally planned -- solely on program fees, membership dues, fund-raisers and private donations.
Rausch and Hooker noted that the senior centers in Dunedin and Tarpon Springs are subsidized with tax dollars. Rausch said this week that her budget projection for next year, which includes an expanded staff, would require a public subsidy of about $111,000.
To raise that sum, she said, would require a real estate tax that would cost just over $6 a year for the owner a home with an appraised value of $125,000 and a $25,000 homestead exemption. Until Thursday, senior center officials had estimated they would need double that.
In Dunedin, the city-run senior center has a budget of $277,000, about $25,000 of which is offset by program fees and fundraisers. The city picks up the rest of the cost.
Tarpon Springs' contribution to its senior center is more difficult to track because the center is just a part of the overall $372,000 recreation budget.
Three senior centers in retiree-abundant Pasco County require no tax assistance. The Elfers, Hudson and Zephyrhills senior centers have annual budgets of $112,000, $47,000 and $71,000, respectively. The centers are funded through fundraisers, cafeteria sales, thrift stores, bingo, United Way contributions and modest program fees (none are more than $4).
The difference, Rausch said, is those centers are established.
Even with tax help, Rausch said, the Palm Harbor Senior Center would still try to raise as much as it can through fundraisers and private donations. But the tax funds would enable the center to eliminate its $25 annual membership fee (though it would still charge $5 to get on its mailing list), greatly reduce program fees, and offer some free programs.
But two Palm Harbor residents who attended a County Commission meeting last week say it will take some convincing to get them to vote for it.
"I'm on the fence on this proposal because there's no information on it," said Bob Clune of Palm Harbor.
Clune also questioned the proposal coming before the county commissioners when County Administrator Fred Marquis had originally mandated the senior center first garner 5,000 signatures on a petition. The center has only obtained 3,300 names.
Last week, Marquis said the 5,000 number was arbitrarily chosen, and that 3,300 should suffice.
Randy Bradshaw, president of the Indian Bluff Homeowners Association, also expressed some concerns about the proposal.
"I'm concerned because they're asking for a lot of money," Bradshaw said. "It seems very rushed at this point."
That doesn't mean he opposes the plan.
"We just want to see it succeed," he said.
The center does carry the support of Steve Putnam, chairman of the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency. If the referendum is approved, the senior center would become a member of the agency, which oversees taxes levied for the library and recreation.
"We need this," Putnam said, "for the rich and the poor. . . . We must be able to support them."
Rausch said she has drawn up a preliminary $300,000 budget for next year. That includes two new full-time maintenance employees, a part-time employee to work weekends and a receptionist/bookkeeper. She anticipates the center will generate $189,000 in revenue from the adult day care center next-door (which is included in the budget), program fees, private donations and fundraisers.
The higher budget also will allow the center to better advertise itself and increase usage, she said.
"Nobody knows we're here," Rausch said.
The center's usage peaked in March with 3,187 visits for such programs as computer classes, ballroom dancing, bridge and tai chi.
Should the referendum fail, Rausch said, the center simply would not open on weekends or in the evenings.
"And I'm going to be doing a lot of fundraising," she said.
- Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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