Letter: A curious conundrum: senior nutrition director terminated

lettersubmissionsDear Editor:
It was announced in the Rio Blanco Herald Times that the Rio Blanco County Human Services Department and Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) have informed the director of the senior nutrition program (known as Chuckwagon in Meeker and Radino in Rangely) that her position is abolished as of January 2017. According to an article in the Nov. 3 Rio Blanco Herald Times, this is allegedly a cost-cutting move in response to a forecast of diminished tax revenues projected for the 2017 RBC budget. The proposed alternative is reportedly that the Rio Blanco County Sheriff’s Office will use funding freed up by terminating the senior nutrition director for the jail to hire a cook to provide meals for the longstanding Chuckwagon Senior Nutrition Program as well as for the jail inmates (which were reported to number 13 at present). Those meals will no longer be prepared in the certified commercial kitchen of the Fairfield Center as they have been for many decades, but rather will be prepared in the county jail kitchen and then transported to the Fairfield Center for the Chuckwagon program. Reportedly, the jail has no cook and inmates are presently provided with food to prepare their own meals. It was also reported that no opportunity for prior input or discussion in the form of public hearings or invitations to discuss the proposal with the social services administrator or the BOCC by seniors, taxpayers and voters was sought or made available by the county human services administrator nor by the BOCC. Moreover, many of those revered Rio Blanco County senior citizens who have long benefitted (for more than four decades) from this traditionally very high quality and essential nutrition service are reported to be adamantly opposed to this action and the fact that they were not consulted for input into that decision before the decision was made. According to an RBC assessor’s publication, county government and special districts tax revenues approaching 90 percent are derived directly from energy production. It is interesting to note that the county has expended (and continues to spend) tens of millions of dollars for the plethora of costly capital projects (such as the fairgrounds renovations in both Meeker and Rangely, the jail and courts complex and the courthouse renovation in Meeker, broadband, economic development and much more). Are jobs and careers less important than spending tens of millions of dollars on capital projects? Yet the opportunity for having public input or even having a public vote on such matters has never been even considered or offered. Elected officials are accountable to and responsible for their decisions and actions to their constituents who elected them.
In the opinion of many seniors and taxpayers this is clearly a “penny-wise and pound-foolish” action posing serious collateral damage and impacts on a grand scale. The questionable mission “to save tax dollars” through abolishing the dedicated and long-standing (more than 20-year professional and highly respected career of the county senior nutrition program director for both the Meeker Chuckwagon and Radino program in Rangely, as well as reduction in hours for the long-serving staff cook). This move will result in the director being suddenly unemployed in January despite her many years of dedicated and highly effective service on behalf of the senior citizens of Meeker and Rangely. No elaboration was given for how the Rangely Radino Center will be administered if the RBC senior nutrition program director is terminated. An answer to that question should also be offered.
In the opinion of many, the only justification (for abolishing the position) seems to be for “saving the taxpayers money.” This begs the question: Just how does this actually save public funds when carefully examined (and of far greater importance) what are the collateral and long-term damages to the soon-to-be deposed senior nutrition director and consequently the adversely affected senior citizens that such an inadequately considered action will impose?”
Reportedly, the Sheriff’s Office which administers the jail (where there are currently only 13 inmates) provides food service by having inmates prepare their own meals with food provided to them. Should this need for food services staff in the jail not have been a budgeted item in the sheriff’s operating budget when the jail was opened? The proposal suggests that the abolishment of the senior nutrition center director will then allow the Sheriff’s Office to hire a cook (which they do not currently have) who then will prepare meals in the jail and transport them to the Fairfield Center Chuckwagon. Reportedly the same diet that inmates are to be served will be provided for the senior citizens. How can this plan even approach the quality and management of the high quality home cooked-style food menus that are currently provided to seniors?
Another question that is begged relates to equivalency in quality and quantity if food is prepared in the jail versus that Fairfield Center kitchen. The Chuckwagon and Radino nutrition programs have always provided carefully supervised diets approved by registered dietitians and medical nutritionists specific to the nutritional needs of geriatric or senior citizens which often differ greatly from meals typically provided for inmates in penal institutions.
Nutritious “comfort foods” are especially important for seniors for enhancing a sense of well-being, lessening depression, and sharing meals in a “family-style” social setting. These factors provide subtle but effective outcomes contributing to happiness, communications with friends and peers, sharing of memories and stories and much more.
Seniors are far more susceptible to food-borne illness risks, food allergies and intolerances, metabolic diseases and other risk factors that have always been carefully managed by the senior nutrition program director and cook for a variety of nutrition issues.
In the opinion of many, prisoner food is hardly likely to even approach the same nutritious quality and variety as well as the current guaranteed level of cleanliness and sanitation now provided by the senior nutrition program provided in the Fairfield Center kitchen despite the assurances by law enforcement and human services representatives to that effect. Seniors are especially susceptible to food-borne illnesses and great care is taken to deliver only carefully prepared and served foods in a sanitary environment at the Fairfield commercial kitchen used for Chuckwagon meals. While it has been stated that inmates will not be involved in the handling or preparation of food intended for the Chuckwagon program the fact that it is being prepared in the jail environment does not preclude the possibility of such risks.
Inmates in penal institutions are not well-known for being free from diseases, having good sanitary and health practices and posing potential risks for other sources of contamination that could easily be inadvertantly transmitted to food prepared in a penal institution, transported to the Fairfield Center and possibly infect those seniors.
As a career county professional employee, Debra Barney has only a county retirement program which she will be too young to collect without severe tax penalties and no other source of income. She has no spouse or ability to obtain support resources from family, so she will be unemployed with no prospects for starting a new career at her age, or otherwise obtaining equivalent income. Consequently, she may even unwillingly become a welfare client of the department for which she is now employed having to seek food stamps, or part time employment and minimum wages. Is this a fitting reward for a dedicated and loyal career RBC public servant? While it is reported that the longstanding Chuckwagon cook will remain employed but with a reduction in hours from 3/4 to half time, the loss of income for her by that reduction is signficant. In the opinion of many this is shameful and outrageous.
Barney draws a very modest salary when compared with other county officials. Yet she has been responsible for coordinating and providing high quality very low-cost nutritious meals that directly impact the good health and well-being of seniors who are financially disadvantaged and living at below poverty-level incomes. Chuckwagon also provides home meal delivery for disabled seniors and invalids.
Moreover, the Chuckwagon and Radino Senior Centers are far more than a source of nutritious meals; they serve as a social environment center for seniors who often are living alone and enjoy conversations and interactions with their peers, family members, card games, live music, entertainment and much more. Thus, the social and interactive needs of our most honorable and respected seniors are well met by the Chuckwagon and Radino programs.
Attendance at Chuckwagon has been high, approaching 30 seniors. This move may have an adverse affect or stigma affecting senior attendance at the center if seniors are not comfortable with being served food prepared in the jail.
Meeker native and community benefactor Freeman Fairfield provided the Fairfield Community Center with his generous multimillion dollar endowment created in his will in 1967 that clearly specified the center was for the exclusive use of the senior citizens and the citizens of Meeker and Rio Blanco County and provided facilities for the Meeker Public Library. The Freeman Fairfield Charitable Trust was also endowed and has generously supported a variety of educational and non-profit opportunities for Meeker youth and citizens for many decades. Fairfield also funded Pioneers Hospital in 1949.
The Fairfield Center has a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environnment certified commercial kitchen which was initially provided primarily for the senior nutrition program and community functions. The senior nutrition program director has for years sought grants and sources for nutritious foods that have creatively reduced the already very modest cost and thus county budget funds allocated for such high quality food service. The meals served to the seniors are prepared in the Fairfield Center kitchen and served in the Fairfield senior center as they have been for more than four decades.
Some years ago however, the county assumed administration and control of the endowed Fairfield Center and began charging use and rental fees to some taxpaying citizens and organizations for the use of the center, including the kitchen and meeting rooms and associated facilities. It is reported that the county also charges the county-administered senior nutrition program $22,000 per year in rent just for four days per week (or 208 two-hour sessions) of lunch services at the center. In some cases where other functions such as weddings, funerals, community gatherings, et al, have conflicted with use of the Fairfield Center, the senior program has frequently deferred to those events and modified their authorized meal service use by cancelling a meal or by serving a meal in the Rangely Radino Senior Center requiring a bus trip for Meeker seniors to Rangely, or other alternatives.
While these functions for which fees and rents are charged by the county, is it really fair for the senior program to have to defer use of the venue so the county can make money on use of the endowed center through rents and fees? Is this not a conflict of interest or possibly could be considered a restraint of trade by a government organization through competition with private enterprise providers who might otherwise offer such services in their venues? Now the county is saying they want to expand this incursion by precluding the Meeker Chuckwagon seniors from their rightful use of the Fairfield kitchen so the county reportedly can rent it out to other groups and charge even more rental fees.
It was recently reported that unemployment in Rio Blanco County is increasing. A great many jobs in the county are in government and public jobs, so the fault for this particularly inappropriate abolishment of the senior nutrition program staff is attributable to decisions of the BOCC and their staff for unjustifiable and unwarranted actions and possible wrongful termination.
The current BOCC incumbents are urged to reverse this ill-considered termination decision immediately. If the current BOCC fails to recognize the impact of their decision, the commissioners-elect along with the one remaining incumbent are urged to take such action upon taking office at the January 2017 BOCC meeting.
Let us hope that the new commissioners will be far more supportive of transparency, and open to public input and discussion of this issue that is (in the opinion of the undersigned) not currently the case.
Moreover, it is hoped that they will also become much more compassionate and supportive for the contributions of the dedicated career employees of the county who are also taxpayers and voters, as well as for their constituents, the RBC citizens who elected them.
Bob Amick
Meeker