On August 8th, city council unanimously approved a resolution to pay $15,000 to an architectural and engineering firm to study the need for the construction of a new Senior Enrichment Center. The City of Oak Ridge website has a time table posted entitled “Projected Schedule for New Senior Enrichment Center.” According to the Recreation and Parks Department director, we could have a brand new senior center in two years. All signs are pointing to yet another multi-million dollar expenditure that we cannot afford.
I recently visited the current senior center facility located on Emory Valley Road. Though not terribly modern, I did find it to be quite spacious with a kitchen, dining room, recreation room, billiards room, large meeting room, computer room, restrooms, exercise room, offices and more. While looking around, I was greeted by the senior center staff who offered to assist me.
I first learned that I was not allowed to simply roam free because I was not of the appropriate age. One must be at least 50 years old to use the facility or its services. To myself, I questioned the legality of a policy that allows non-resident, non-paying people to use a public facility but excludes actual residents whose tax dollars fund it. But I digress.
The staff was helpful in their attempt to answer some of my questions. Though they did not have current numbers readily available, they did inform me that the number of seniors who use the facility is down since the last major survey in 2007. That survey reflects that 1,244 individual Oak Ridgers and 793 non-residents (who do not pay) used the senior center at least once the entire year.
According to the FY2011 budget, the annual cost per senior center user is $138. To be conservative, if one uses the 2007 statistics, the approximate annual amount spent on Oak Ridge residents is $171,672 ($138 x 1,244). The total spent on non-Oak Ridgers comes out to $104,174 (($138 x 530) + ($118 x 263)). The equation used for non-Oak Ridgers accounts for a $20 credit paid per Anderson County/non-Oak Ridge resident user by the county. The total amount budgeted for the entire senior center program for FY2011 is $278,928. This means that at least 37% of the senior center budget funds non-residents.
So why is the city willing to spend millions of dollars for a facility to replace one that is currently used by less than 5% of Oak Ridgers, hundreds of non-paying, non-residents and cannot be used by the majority of those footing the bill?
I believe I know the answer. Guilt. There’s an extensive history behind the senior center saga that I will not go into except to say that I’m sure there’s some truth to the claim that promises have been broken. But two wrongs don’t make a right.
The fact is we are drowning in debt and cannot afford luxuries like another new building, of any kind. There are alternatives that can and should be pursued. At the very least, the senior center can remain where it is currently located and be purchased by the city in less than 3 years for the cost of $1 in accordance with a 2009 resolution. If that is not feasible, then the civic center, which is rarely, if ever at full capacity, can provide the alternative space.
I implore our leaders to put an immediate end to this pursuit and encourage our citizens to engage in this and all public matters regarding our financial straits.