Commissioners respond to questions about senior nutrition program

RBC | A public workshop Monday prior to the regular county commissioners’ meeting to address proposed changes in the preparation of senior meals at Chuckwagon attracted several dozen senior citizens concerned about their nutrition program Monday.
“After the millions of dollars you’ve spent on this building (the county Justice Center), why is it so important to cut services to seniors,” asked one woman.
Commissioner Jon Hill responded, “We did not look on it as cutting services. We’ll provide the same level of service we’re providing right now.”
The county’s health and human services department and the sheriff’s office had come up with a plan to reduce costs by sharing one full-time cook between the jail and the senior nutrition program. The change would mean laying off current senior nutrition director Debra Barney and cutting hours for Chuckwagon cook Shona Richardson. A full-time cook would be hired for the jail (meals are currently prepared by the jailers), who would also prepare the four meals a week served at the Chuckwagon program. Richardson would then transport the meals from the jail to the Fairfield Center. Based on calculations, the new program would cut the cost per plate of the senior meals to $10 per plate, down from a range of $18-32 per plate during the past year.
Both Barney and Richardson would be eligible to apply for the full-time position with the sheriff’s office.
Asked about the type and quality of food that would be provided, Health and Human Services Director Jennifer O’Hearon said, “We have to, by state statute, have a dietician. The jail would be required to follow that same menu, same recipes, approved by a dietician contracted for our program. They would still have to follow that menu with a dietician’s guidance.”
Lt. Debbie Merriam said, “Jailers have always prepared all the meals. We cook three meals a day. We have a certified kitchen, we’re going to fix meals anyway. We do fix good, quality meals. The savings comes in the fact you’re not running two kitchens, there’s a dietician already working in the arena. We all have to cut corners, personally and professionally. I don’t like to see anyone feel like they’re slighted. It will help my jail staff because they’ll be free to do their jobs. Quality, availability of the food is not going to change. The care that goes into it will be the same.”
Commissioner-elect Si Woodruff, who will be sworn in to office in January, asked, “If we hire a cook and give them benefits and retirement and we transport the food back and forth, how much money are we actually saving?”
“A little over $50,000, and that’s just the first year,” O’Hearon replied. “We’ll see more savings as we go along.”
“You’ve chosen a fight I think you’re going to lose,” Woodruff said. “To me these people (the seniors) don’t ask for much of anything.”
The commissioners listened to the complaints and concerns, and agreed that they didn’t take into consideration the human aspect of the program, but were “looking at 50 percent reduction in the cost per meal and still having the same quality of meal” provided. They agreed to table the discussion, meet with the seniors, and revisit the plan.
“The budget won’t be approved until Dec. 12,” Bolton said. “We’re going to have these discussions before we adopt the budget.”
In other business, the commissioners:
– Approved 34 items on the consent agenda, including 21 budget variance requests related to the courthouse renovation project.
– Approved an agreement for services for new windows at the Coal Creek Schoolhouse, not to exceed $8,500.
– Approved a $240,000 courthouse design project.
– Signed a resolution of support for the proposed liquid natural gas facility at Jordan Cove. “Several counties in the western United States want to sign on to that,” Bolton said. “Garfield and Mesa are going to sign the same resolution. The majority of the gas will come out of the Piceance Basin.”
UPDATE ON SENIOR PROGRAM: The county commissioners, sheriff, and health and human services director met with the seniors at Chuckwagon Wednesday and announced no changes will be made to the program for six months, during which time they will survey the senior citizens and review options for the senior nutrition program.