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    Future of senior center left to voters

    Supporters say a tax dedicated to the center needs approval so the center can lower program costs and hire staffers.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


    The Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center is losing about $3,000 a month.

    Membership is less than half what was projected.

    Director Irene Rausch and her assistant, the two full-time staff members, regular work 60-plus hours per week in order to keep up. Rausch says she has to corral her sons to clean the bathrooms.

    Two months shy of its one-year anniversary, senior center officials say something has to give.

    On Nov. 7, Palm Harbor voters will be asked to support the senior center with a dedicated real estate tax.

    When the senior center was opened last year, it was intended to support itself through membership and program fees, grants, donations and fundraisers. But soon after the $1.3-million facility opened on 16th Street, the center's board found operating expenses were much higher than expected. For example, last month's air conditioning bill was $1,800.

    And high program fees -- necessary to sustain those operating costs -- have kept many fixed-income seniors away. For example, computer classes cost $48; ballroom dancing, $24; and oil painting, $30. Those costs are significantly higher than at other publicly supported senior centers in the area, Rausch said.

    "We can't compete," Rausch said.

    "What I have heard over and over and over is "I wish I could go to tai chi' or some other program, but the cost is $30 a month," Rausch said. "Here are all these wonderful things, and a great majority of people can't afford to do them."

    The referendum would set a real-estate tax cap of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. But senior center directors say they will need a little less than half that to meet next year's projected budget. So, if approved, the senior center would seek a real-estate tax of about 12 cents per $1,000, which would translate to about $12.50 for the owner of a home with an assessed value of $125,000, less a $25,000 homestead exemption.

    With an infusion of about $250,000 in tax money next year, Rausch said, the center could eliminate membership fees, lower program costs and hire the additional staff needed to maintain the building and staff evening and weekend activities.

    "We need to get more activities in here, and we need more personnel to do that," said senior-center board member Jerry Hooker.

    Board members said they miscalculated operating expenses and overestimated membership and donation revenues.

    "Our crystal ball wasn't all that good," said board member Jack Cox.

    Don Mulhollen, treasurer and board member, said the senior center started last year with working capital of $105,000. As of Sept. 30, that reserve had dwindled to $64,000. He said the center is losing about $3,000 a month on average.

    "It doesn't take much math to understand that shortly, we will deplete our working capital," Mulhollen said.

    If the referendum fails, the center wouldn't necessarily go bankrupt, Mulhollen said. But it would serve fewer people because program fees would have to be raised.

    In addition to staff, the other top priority for tax funds would be parking. Longer range plans include developing nature trails in the wooded 4.5 acres behind the senior center.

    While senior center board members say the referendum has been well-received in the community, it has met with tenacious opposition from several residents, led by Bob Clune.

    Clune said changing budget figures suggests poor organization on the board. He also believes Rausch's attendance estimates -- 14,806 from January through June -- are grossly inflated.

    County Commissioner Sallie Parks is a staunch supporter of the referendum, but she worries the board may have made strategic errors in pitching the referendum to the public.

    "I think it is important to have a viable senior center," Parks said. "I consider it an investment in my community, and it's a small investment."

    But the pitch from the center's leadership has been too low-key, she said. She also worries officials have stressed the need to add staff rather than emphasizing the additional programming and lower fees that could be accomplished with taxpayer support.

    Parks, who is a member of the center, also believes the center's leadership should have tried to appeal to a broader base by touting more programs for a variety of ages, rather than just seniors.

    Users of the senior center believe the referendum is critical.

    "These programs are very important to seniors who wouldn't get outside if it weren't for the center," said volunteer Toni Citro of East Lake. "We need badly to keep the center going."

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