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Elaine Johnson: Little Council Support for Funding Senior Programs

Despite Waldack's repeated efforts, there's little Council interest in funding senior programs. How did a relatively modest expenditure become so controversial?

Another budget season and another impassioned attempt by Commissioner William Waldack to convince his Village Council colleagues to reinstate funds to two programs that serve local senior citizens.

Waldack, at the Nov. 1 council meeting, made yet another pitch for his colleagues to earmark $60,000 in the 2012 budget for two programs benefitting senior citizens. The council discontinued its contribution to the federally subsidized two years ago, at which time it also trimmed its taxi subsidy program.

Since then, Waldack has repeatedly asked the council to reconsider, trotting out visual aids—an apple to represent the council majority’s focus on core services in 2010, a sliced penny to represent the relative cost of seniors’ programs Nov. 1—and answering his colleagues’ challenges on where to find funding, whether the money would stay in Downers Grove, and the nature of the Meals on Wheels program.

Last year, the discussion got muddied when Commissioner Bob Barnett and former Mayor Ron Sandack as just one worthy charity among dozens, and questioned whether it was the role of local government to choose a single organization to support.

Barnett repeated that argument at the Oct. 18 council meeting. “We know we have needs all over town,” he said. “Why one group, in this case seniors that have meal challenges or are homebound, are somehow more deserving for the redistribution of tax dollars than our battered women, than our youth, than our homeless, than those who are in their homes and dying for their FISH drop off they pick up.”

Both Waldack and Commissioner Marilyn Schnell corrected that characterization, pointing out again that Meals on Wheels is not a charity but a 45-year-old federally funded program administered locally by the DuPage Senior Citizens Council. 

“It’s not a charity,” said Schnell, who a year ago was rebuffed when she suggested the council allocate $12,500 to the program. She appeared reconciled that a similar decision will be forthcoming this year. “I happen to view it as a program that for a good 10 years the Village of Downers Grove helped to contribute to seniors. I think it’s a worthwhile program. I know it’s not going to go anywhere. I don’t want to be argumentative.”

When Waldack suggested the council lacked the “political will” to fund the senior citizen programs while at the same time picking and choosing which businesses to grant tax breaks—Mayor Martin Tully chastised him. “Trying to shame people into a vote is not going to get you anywhere. We need to stick to responsible, civilized debate.”

Tully earlier suggested there might be a way to reconcile the “valid concerns” of those who are against subsidizing a "special interest" with a desire to be compassionate. While he doesn’t have a solution yet, “this issue will come back every single year,” Tully said. He pledged to work on finding a solution.

A year ago, challenging to come up with program by which residents might contribute to worthy causes. However, hasn’t met since May and last discussed the “social service question” on April 6, the day after the municipal election.

After listening to arguments pro and con over the past three budget seasons, I’m fascinated that earmarking a modest amount to a pair of local senior citizen programs has become so controversial.

The amount is similar to what is routinely paid for various studies, such as this year’s $45,000 downtown parking study, and the population segment in question—Waldack puts it at 10 percent—isn’t insignificant. Further, unlike many charity recipients, the senior citizens benefitting from Meals on Wheels are typically homeowners, i.e. taxpayers, and have been for decades.

These are the same taxpayers who will see their water bills rise dramatically and who will fork over tax dollars for sidewalks they may never walk. And as Waldack pointed out, they pay the same hefty amount for schools, long after their own kids have graduated and moved on. Why? Because it’s for the greater good.

There's also the matter of consistency. If certain council members truly have a philosophical bias against the “redistribution of wealth” to senior citizens, why hasn’t someone put the remaining taxi subsidy on the chopping block? It would seem you’re either for or against this expenditure, not for and against.

Waldack has long championed the interests of local seniors, and in doing so has attempted to leaven a council that often votes with a single mind. While he may occasionally go too far, as Tully said, I’ll submit that’s better for Downers Grove than not seeing the issue raised at all.

Government is always about competing interests and the wise citizen realizes there is a greater good than their own narrow interests. As the daughter of aging parents who are struggling to stay in their own home, I am well aware of the challenges confronting this taxpaying segment of our community and I would happily see a small portion of my tax dollars go toward their support. Just as I happily support toddler programs at the library and economic development and  beautification efforts, and other government programs that make Downers Grove a good place to live.

Modest senior citizen programs are worthy of our support, whether or not they also happen to be William Waldack’s pet cause. If the budget can't accomodate such an expenditure, I'll be looking forward to Barnett's continuing efforts on their behalf, as well as Tully's innovative solution.

Kent Frederick November 04, 2011 at 05:42 AM
What about hiring an additional police officer to run the "Dare" program? Certainly, trying to keep kids from experimenting and becoming addicted to drugs is a laudible goal, and most people would agree that spending tax money is proper. Yet, there is disagreement as to the effectiveness of the "Dare" program. Then comes the question as to priority. Should we be helping homebound seniors, or should we be trying to help children to become successful adults? Because, we may not have the tax money to do both. The Village is in the same situation that most individuals are in. There are many worthy causes, buy you can't fund all of them. Especially when the economy isn't showing signs of a robust rebound.
William Vollrath November 04, 2011 at 02:39 PM
If, even after a very generous, six digit contribution to the Reserve Fund, the 2012 budget still projects a surplus of some $80,000, why can't Council demonstrate it is responsive to the many citizens who would like to see a bit more flexibility and responsiveness in our Village government's approach to significant citizen needs versus money for consultants, government groups, TIF marketing, etc. I understand the projected surplus is no sure thing, so why not budget $30,000 to $50,000 for accelerated street repairs, MOW support, Community Policing and/or Senior Taxi Vouchers, etc. with the understanding that half the expenditures would not be made until the second half of the year dependent on the state of Village finances at that time.
Mary Olson November 04, 2011 at 08:28 PM
Glad to have you back!
Jon November 07, 2011 at 10:29 PM
I thought the Townships claimed to be there for social services? At leat that is what they say everytime someone questions the inefficient government waste that are townships. How about disolving townships and the money saved can go to social programs like meals on wheels and the taxi subsidy. They obviously can't handle the only real function they claim to have.
Elaine Johnson November 08, 2011 at 12:42 AM
Thanks, Mary!

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