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story.lead_photo.caption Craig Cloud, former director for the Aging and Adult Services Division of the state Department of Human Services, is shown in this file photo.

South Arkansas' declining population has meant a drop in funding for its senior citizens, and legislators last week engaged in heated debate over whether to revitalize the region's programs for the aged by pulling dollars from other parts of the state.

The pot of money for the Area Agencies on Aging, which provide food and transportation and operates senior-citizen centers, has remained about the same for the past decade, but the agencies are serving more people and the costs of goods have risen, officials say.

Legislators debated adding two categories to factors the formula used when doling out money for services for senior citizens: one based on rural population and the other based on the number of people over 75. All factors are based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

These measures aim to assist all rural regions, and five regions would get more money, but south Arkansas stands to gain the most. All funding would change by less than a percentage point.

"This was all about fairness," said Craig Cloud, former director for the Aging and Adult Services Division of the state Department of Human Services. "It was about preventing a large decrease that had happened."

Under the proposed change, 15 percent of funding for regional Area Agencies on Aging would be based on a region's proportion of rural Arkansans who are 60 and older; 5 percent of funding would be based on the proportion of all residents 75 and older.

The change also would decrease the funding percentage based on all residents 60 and older from 50 percent to 35 percent. Twenty-five percent would be based on low-income people 60 and older, and 20 percent based on low-income minority-group populations 60 and older.

"This is a difficult situation, and there may not be a better solution to this," said David White, a deputy director for the Aging and Adult Services Division. White presented the plan to a legislative committee on Wednesday.

White said that operating rural agencies may be more expensive because the clientele live farther apart and tend to be older, so they have more needs.

Ruthie Langston, executive director of the southwest region, said that, as her agency's budget has shrunk since about 2011, she's been scrambling to make ends meet. A couple of years ago, she asked for a pay cut to try to preserve programs as the agency started working four days a week instead of five.

"Funds equals service," Langston said. "That's the way it goes, and you can't separate the two."

James Word, the interim executive director in the southeast region and a former state representative, proposed two bills concerning funding for Area Agencies on Aging while he was in the Legislature.

One died in committee. The other, which directed the Human Services Department to examine the funding formula, passed in 2013. Word said he thought the proposed formula discussed on Wednesday would be helpful and address many of the issues he faces in southeast Arkansas.

"It really would help those area agencies that kind of are really struggling," Word said. "Right now, we are struggling with our senior centers. We don't have enough funding to run those senior centers."

From fiscal 2010 to 2017, southeast Arkansas lost about 15 percent of its budget from state and federal funds -- from about $2.7 million to $2.3 million. Southwest Arkansas lost 12 percent -- from close to $3 million to $2.6 million. Both saw a slight increase in the 2018-19 year.

While rural areas would gain under the new plan, the groups in Northwest, central and western Arkansas would face budget cuts. They serve 21 of Arkansas' 75 counties.

Northwest Arkansas would lose the most money -- about $200,000 with all factors considered, including a loss of revenue from other funds dedicated to the agencies. Jerry Mitchell, executive director for the region, said Washington County would take the "hardest hit."

All eight regional executive directors met last year to discuss the change, and Mitchell was the only one to vote against it.

"It doesn't make sense to just change the process on how you're going to distribute the money because you're going to have winners and losers every year," he said.

Mitchell was the only director called on to answer questions at Wednesday's joint legislative Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs meeting, although Langston said she wrote her name down, requesting to comment.

The committee didn't vote because not enough members were present, although the vote would have been a courtesy. The measure will next head to Administrative Rules and Regulations for a vote on Tuesday.

Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, opposed the change, saying that a hungry person should be fed no matter where they live. Fite's district stands to lose the most money in the formula change.

"It should not matter where in the state they live," she said during a later interview. "We should not be taking money away from one area to put in another area. If we need more money, we should add more money."

Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, attended the meeting to speak in favor of the rule change, but left partway through after a heated exchange with Fite. Gray supported a 2017 bill, which didn't pass, that would have made similar changes to the funding formula.

At the meeting Gray said it was "frustrating" to hear Fite's opposition and line of questioning that she thought was attempting to shut down the project at the very end of the study process.

The issue is that there isn't enough money to go around, which is compounded by a population that is living longer and dwindling revenue, said Luke Mattingly, executive director for CareLink, the agency in central Arkansas.

The agencies are funded in part by the state's cigarette tax, for which receipts are declining, White said.

Mattingly and Mitchell said the agencies also used to split close to $1 million per year out of the state's General Improvement Fund. That money stopped coming after the fund became embroiled in public-corruption scandals.

"The real issue is there's just not enough money in the system," Mattingly said. "Anytime you change the funding formula, you're just moving the money from one area to another."

Mattingly's agency would take $71,000 in cuts under the rule change, but he said he still voted at the directors' meeting in favor of it because it would hurt his agency the least.

He said it's been about a decade since money for the agencies was increased at the state or federal level, but costs of goods and the numbers of people the groups are serving have gone up.

Jennifer Hallum, executive director for the western region, said she did the same. She added that in every proposal presented at the meeting, her region would lose money. She would lose $137,000 to Crawford and Sebastian counties under the new plan.

"Nobody gets elected saying they're going to raise taxes," Hallum said. "Nobody on a budget committee says they want to increase spending. ... All the AAA [Area Agencies on Aging] are together, so if one of us wins, that means that someone else has to lose."

A map showing money received by Area Agencies on Aging

SundayMonday on 09/16/2018

Print Headline: Agencies serving older Arkansans face budget debate

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  • RBear
    September 16, 2018 at 8:43 a.m.

    Our state's elderly will encounter more cuts to services because our governor and Republican legislature choose to reward the rich with a $192 million tax cut instead of providing assistance to those who need it most. These are vulnerable individuals who sometimes make tough decisions on food and medications. Some of the funding challenges are a result of funding sources that experienced public corruption problems, casting a greater scrutiny on the source in general. Others are from just general budget cuts.
    ...
    Hopefully, more rational and compassionate minds will prevail. But, for now I'm not holding out much hope with this governor and this Republican legislature. They are too wrapped up in cutting taxes and cutting funds to pay for those tax cuts.

  • Knuckleball1
    September 16, 2018 at 8:54 a.m.

    The Idiots in the State House do not care about the Seniors and will again cut the budget in the upcomming session. They only care about the Rich not the Poor and Ederly. I hope for their sake they either steal enough money or get enough money under the table to take care of them later in life... for if left up to them, there would not be any of the current programs still getting funded.

  • Nodmcm
    September 16, 2018 at 9:30 a.m.

    Conservatives support the idea of supporting and helping the already strong, and removing support from the weak. The ideology is based on social Darwinism, which posits that humans should live like animals in nature, where the sick and weak animals should perish (be eaten by others), while the strong animals will prevail and live successfully. So for elderly who have massive saving, say $100,000 or more, well, they can pay for their own care. For those who don't have savings, well, they made a mistake, are now weak, and should pay for their slothfulness by being denied state aid for food and medicine. Social Darwinism is the guiding philosophy, and it basically says, "The rich aren't rich enough, and the poor aren't poor enough."

  • UoABarefootPhdFICYMCA
    September 16, 2018 at 12:14 p.m.

    Simple. Tell them to get jobs and everything will fix itself.

  • UoABarefootPhdFICYMCA
    September 16, 2018 at 12:43 p.m.

    "AID" them by telling them to get jobs..
    Thats the golden ticket ask a Republican.

  • RBear
    September 16, 2018 at 1:05 p.m.

    So we get the "Republican" wisdom from barefoot on programs regarding the elderly. "Tell them to get jobs" he says. These are 75 and 80 year old individuals who can't get jobs now. In other words, he's basically shoved grandma to the curb because it's the "Republican" way to deal with the elderly who are disadvantaged.
    ...
    I mean, those are his words. But they are also the words of MANY right wingers, not necessarily all Republicans, regarding programs like this. It's definitely not the words of Democrats who understand the needs of these elderly Arkansans. What's interesting is that IF the size of Hutchinson's tax cut was reduced by 2% it would adequately fund these elderly programs. But I seriously doubt that's in his mindset. Instead, he'll promote what is being proposed by taking from one area of the state to fund another. It's just a shell game with very limited funds.

  • UoABarefootPhdFICYMCA
    September 16, 2018 at 1:13 p.m.

    Im hating Republicans more and more everyday.
    It's becoming abundantly clear as art imitates life that these are the same people who apathetic's want to gun down in High School.
    They are tying to make life more like high school...
    Civil war is now.

  • RBear
    September 16, 2018 at 1:18 p.m.

    More evidence barefoot is WAY off the reservation on issues. What's sad is that people like him are given the right to vote. The flaws of a democracy. It's why we are a republic in governing, hopefully filtering out the stupidity of ideas like barefoot's.

  • abb
    September 16, 2018 at 1:21 p.m.

    ^^^^please bring your war liberals!^^^^ Everyone forgets the phase before civil wars: the settling of scores. Be careful for what you wish for....just sayin'

  • UoABarefootPhdFICYMCA
    September 16, 2018 at 1:28 p.m.

    Once again mr does not understand satire.
    This big clubbed troll is a Constitutional and Sovereign classical liberal anti class rationalist minarchist agorist agrarian.
    That should keep you busy for awhile

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