Islanders arrive for lunch at the Senior Center, which serves the meal four days a week. (Susan Riemer/Staff Photo)

Islanders arrive for lunch at the Senior Center, which serves the meal four days a week. (Susan Riemer/Staff Photo)

County funding for senior centers disappoints on Vashon

King County recently awarded more than $20.6 million to senior centers across the region, a disbursement that will include more than $1 million for some center partnerships and $90,000 to the Vashon Senior Center.

The expanded Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy, which county residents voted on in 2017, is the source of the awards. Earlier this year, the county invited senior centers to apply for up to $440,000 each year for five years, for a total of $2.2 million. Last week, the county announced that 28 senior centers that joined together in partnerships, or “hubs,” will divide nearly $19.5 million over the next four and a half years. Additionally, 13 senior centers, including Vashon’s, will receive $90,000 in one-time funding to provide services or invest in minor capital or equipment purchases. The disparity between the amount awarded and the sum Vashon will receive has drawn strong criticism from King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who termed the $90,000 “consolation funding.” McDermott also said he has lost his confidence in the hub model, for which the county called on centers to band together and offer resources — which the Vashon Senior Center determined too difficult to do because of its island location.

“I believe the county made a mistake in the hub model, and I am sorely disappointed in these awards,” McDermott said.

He also took issue with a county press release about the funding, which indicated the awards would expand outreach to isolated seniors.

“Who could be more geographically isolated than seniors on a rural island accessible only by ferry?” he said.

Vashon Senior Center Executive Director Catherine Swearingen also expressed disappointment about the much smaller award than she had requested and hoped for — and the lost opportunities involved.

“I was pretty sure that we would not get everything we asked for, but I thought surely we would get enough to actually support isolated seniors,” she said.

Swearingen noted that originally, the county intended to only fund senior center hubs — leading center officials to try to figure out how to partner with others — but was persuaded to allow single centers, such as Vashon, to apply.

She noted that while her proposal did not include other senior centers in the region, it did include partnerships with other nonprofits on the island, including Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS), the Vashon Community Food Bank and Vashon Island Pet Protectors — making the local senior center a Vashon hub.

“That is why I was really surprised we were not funded. There are no other senior centers on the island, but the heart of what we were doing was forming partnerships to serve seniors on the island,” she said. “We felt comfortable that we would be given equal consideration.”

Isolation is a major factor that contributes to poor health for seniors, she said, noting that the rural nature of the island can mean more isolation for seniors than their urban counterparts. The larger amount of levy funds that Swearingen hoped to receive would have enabled the center to conduct a needs assessment to accurately determine who the island’s isolated seniors are, what services they are receiving and identify the gaps. Additionally, the center hoped to partner with VYFS to hire a social worker to support seniors; augment transportation; expand the Neighbor to Neighbor program, which provides volunteer services to help islanders remain in their homes, and increase nutrition services, among other targeted outreach efforts.

She stressed that transportation is one of the most pressing needs for island elders.

“If your mobility is limited and you do not live close to the bus route, how do you get around?” she said, speaking about seniors who no longer drive.

Her application requested funds to buy two accessible vans for multi-passenger trips, including for doctor’s appointments, activities and on-demand, no-cost senior transportation. The Community Van program, she noted, is not particularly senior-friendly, with advance notice required and the two-person requirement for trips.

“If you are a single senior, it is not really available to go over town or to the grocery store or get to Neighborcare,” she said.

Swearingen and island activist Hilary Emmer, who chairs Vashon Social Services Network, said they were disappointed that the island’s taxes were not coming back to the community through this process.

In 2019, the Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy brought in more than $308,000 from the island, Emmer said, comparing it to the $90,000 received.

“We are certainly not getting our share,” she said.

At King County, however, Leon Richardson, the acting director of the Adult Services Division for the Department of Community and Human Services, said more funds through the levy will be made available for seniors, veterans and vulnerable populations, and Vashon nonprofits will be able to apply for those.

Regarding this round of awards, he said the process was extremely competitive and included a review panel of many subject matter experts. In the evaluation process, they judged each proposal on its own merits and looked for innovative collaboration and outreach to underserved populations with a strong equity lens in mind.

“Ultimately, we were faced with many difficult decisions,” he said.

He acknowledged the work of all the centers that applied and said that he was pleased that some funding was provided to each of them.

Additionally, he said that the county routinely provides some funding to the Vashon Senior Center: about $27,000 in 2019 and about $28,000 projected for next year. Regarding the different groups the levy targets, he said he is planning on coming to Vashon soon to see about addressing veterans’ needs.

“We are very aware, and it is on our mind, how do we do innovative things to meet the needs not only of the community of Vashon, but all the communities throughout King County,” he said.

At the Vashon Senior Center, Board President Liz Illg also expressed disappointment about the funding, mentioning in particular the importance of a needs assessment — which might now be done “Vashon style,” she said — as well as the small number of hours island senior staff are paid for: six hours, four days a week, though they work far more than that.

“That new funding would have allowed us to ramp that up and meet the needs better,” she said.

But she also said the quest for funding to support island seniors will not stop with this decision.

“It is an invitation to the community to step up,” she said.

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