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Everett’s senior center members fear closure will last for years

EVERETT — How the city closed the Carl Gipson Senior Center indefinitely with no reopening date — beyond when the coronavirus pandemic eases — is not going well among people watching out for its 1,000 members.
Multiple people affiliated with the center said they fear it might never reopen because they think the city will sideline it in the budget.
If the city could communicate a reopening date, “people would be ecstatic,” said member Brenda Bacon.
It can’t yet. The city says it is developing a plan for the senior center, but it is grappling with a much bigger-picture situation to arrange the 2021 budget. The coronavirus erased millions of dollars from the city’s tax revenue estimates.
Officially, the center will be closed “at least through 2021” and scheduled to be one of the last groups of services to re-open, Lori Cummings, the city’s executive director for parks, told the City Council on April 22. It was one piece of a city budget reduction package that cut $3.4 million because of COVID-19 hurting the economy.
Seniors hope that they’re not left out.
For some of its members, the center is their only social outlet. For some, the center provides their only robust meal of the day. Homage senior services is still serving a lunch on weekdays outside the center. 
“People are in dire need of social time, and to not be isolated is critical,” the senior center’s laid-off director Bob Dvorak said.
Carlton Gipson, who is the president of the Carl Gipson Senior Center Foundation, said he understands the city budget’s woes for the short term. He is concerned about the long-term. “On long term prospects, I’m very concerned the city uses this closure as a budget balancing” item, Gipson said.
The city is working to refund everyone their $30 senior center membership fees.

Funding idea
The center costs $600,000 or so to staff and run, according to the city budget. Its four staff members and their related employment benefits amounted to $439,000.
Dvorak thinks there’s a pathway to reopen: The city has a Senior Center Reserve Fund with approximately $480,000 to $500,000 that could, he said, float the center’s operations for up to two years while a plan to make the center independent and self-sufficient comes into place, and he publicly suggested that a senior center foundation in Everett could open its reserve fund to help with the cost.
Tapping the Everett Senior Center Foundation to commit thousands of dollars isn’t something the organization appears ready to do.
“I don’t know why Bob said that,” its president Paul Miller said.
While the foundation has $250,000 on hand, this core money is being treated like an endowment fund or philanthropy trust: The $250,000 earns bank interest, and the foundation gifts away the interest for grants benefitting seniors countywide.
“That $250,000 is not to be touched,” Miller said.
It is open to being asked to give a grant to help, he said.
Dvorak contends that since the senior center is currently closed, the foundation could release all its money to help re-open it.
The Gipson foundation, which formed more recently, has built up only around $7,000, Gipson said.
The city is evaluating the reserve fund, Cummings said in a statement.
“Under the Governor’s phased Safe Start plan, we don’t anticipate being able to safely re-open the center again this year. We are therefore taking this time to consider how best to use the reserve funds to serve the needs of our seniors in the future,” Cummings said in a statement. “We want them to have a place to gather when it is safe to do so. We will keep our community informed as we continue this work.”
A request to the city to interview either Cummings or assistant parks director Kimberly Shelton couldn’t be fulfilled by story deadline Friday, May 15. A city spokeswoman said a conversation about the senior center reopening plan is premature.
The reserve’s primary function is to be a “stable funding source for senior activities and special events,” as described in the city’s 2013 budget.
The city has not taken out the money in the senior center reserve fund, city spokeswoman Kimberley Cline confirmed.
Dvorak suggests that ultimately the center could break away from the city and function as a nonprofit organization, which is how many other senior centers operate.
One example is the Snohomish Senior Center, which Dvorak managed before being hired at the Carl Gipson Senior Center. Snohomish’s center is given upward of $12,000 in contributions by the city, plus the city pays for many of the center’s utility bills, and it makes improvements and building repairs. Largely with everything else, it is on its own.
Even if it wanted to open when social gatherings are re-allowed by the state, one item to note: The governor’s reopening plan for the state includes a line in its presentation that seniors and vulnerable populations may need to remain isolated well after businesses reopen.
How to reopen the center
There is apprehension that the city will ever be able to include the Carl Gipson Senior Center in its budget.
Closing it “concerns me a great deal — to take the easy way out — because what do we have for (our senior population)?,” Gipson said.
The senior center wasn’t the only cut. Temporarily closing the Forest Park Swim Center and canceling most summertime events are just a few of the other casualties within $3.4 million worth of budget adjustments created by COVID-19’s economic impact.
“Once you close something, it’s hard to open it again,” Dvorak said. He doesn’t think the City Council will include the center in the budget.
Gipson thinks the center risks never reopening unless there is a “champion on council” for the center, he said.
Looking for a hero, people the Tribune spoke with point to Councilwoman Brenda Stonecipher and Councilman Scott Murphy, who both wanted to pause voting on the budget cuts April 22* by a week to gather public input. Other council members questioned what purpose waiting had since the same cuts would be brought up again for consideration.
The messaging the administration relayed to council during the April 22 meeting was quick, albeit painful, action mattered because the city finances were bleeding money. Nobody explicitly said it, but the items in the package weren’t offered as discussion points for negotiation.
Everett’s budget picture had a hole blown through it with less sales tax revenue because stores were closed for coronavirus.
Before COVID-19 swamped the city budget revenues, the city has been transparent that it also has a structural deficit — where the city spends more than it brings in. Politicians blame state limits on property tax revenue as one contributing factor. On sales tax revenue, Everett’s “market share” of sales activity within the county is eroding as north county and the Alderwood-Lynnwood areas have expanded shopping, from a city analysis.
Shortly after the April 22 meeting, all four staffers at the senior center’s were laid off. They were among the city’s 17 layoffs in the budget cut; a further 59 employees took voluntary buyouts.



To send us a letter to the editor: letters@snoho.com




*- CORRECTION
In this story, “Everett’s senior center members fear closure will last for years,” the story suggests that the City Council met on both April 22 and April 20. The meeting was held April 22, but a mention of an “April 20 meeting” was missed during the editing process. The Tribune regrets any confusion. This version edits any mention of April 20.

  

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