City, San Juan County are scrambling to ensure senior centers have meals
Farmington applies to serve as fiscal agent for senior nutrition programs for all five local senior centers
BLANCO — Bernice Jacquez stopped by the Blanco Senior Center on Feb. 10 as she does most days to eat lunch with other community residents. But soon the residents gathered for the daily meal learned there wouldn’t be any food prepared that day.
“Everyone who was starting to come in was like, ‘where’s lunch?’” Jacquez recalled.
The staff employed by Northwest New Mexico Seniors Inc., who worked at the Blanco Senior Center, were laid off, according to County Manager Mike Stark. He said only county employees remain at the Blanco Senior Center. The staff shortage meant they couldn’t prepare the meal.
“It was devastating,” Jacquez said.
San Juan County reached out to the City of Bloomfield for help. The Bloomfield Senior Center opened its doors for the Blanco seniors, who were loaded into a van and transported approximately 10 miles to Bloomfield.
Jacquez said she chose not to join her companions on the van and instead returned home to make her own meal.
The seniors were transported to Bloomfield for one week, then Bloomfield began preparing meals to ship to Blanco. That requires Blanco employees to drive to Bloomfield to pick up meals.
Seniors agency won't seek meal program funding
At the same time, the local cities and San Juan County were informed that Northwest New Mexico Seniors would not file an application for the funding used for senior nutrition.
The senior centers send Northwest New Mexico Seniors a meal projection report on a monthly basis. Then Northwest New Mexico Seniors orders the food for the five senior centers and uses state and federal money to reimburse food purchases. These reimbursements come from the Non-Metro Area Agency on Aging. Over the past few years, Northwest New Mexico Seniors has complained that these reimbursements sometimes come several months late.
Non-Metro Area Agency on Aging submits reimbursement requests to the New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department and, once it receives the funds, it distributes the reimbursement to Northwest New Mexico Seniors. Before the reimbursements can be sent to Non-Metro Area Agency on Aging, the department of aging and long-term services submits the reviewed report to the New Mexico Department of Finance Administration.
For years, both Northwest New Mexico Seniors and Non-Metro Area Agency on Aging have said decreasing funding and increasing demand has created challenges for them.
Stark said the continual lack of funding from the state and the late reimbursements made it hard for Northwest New Mexico Seniors to pay the bills. He said Northwest New Mexico Seniors is not the only agency struggling.
“This is a statewide issue,” he said.
The announcement that Northwest New Mexico Seniors would not apply to manage the funding left the cities and county scrambling to prevent the loss of senior nutrition money.
“Ultimately what’s at risk is $750,000 if we don’t have someone apply,” Stark said.
Farmington picks up the slack
The City of Farmington chose to file the application and the City Council unanimously approved that decision on Feb. 18. City Manager Rob Mayes said Farmington was the only entity that had the capacity to handle the additional responsibility.
“We just really had to step up and do something,” he said.
Mayes said the city will serve as the fiscal agent for the nutrition programs and will put together an advisory council, however it will not be taking over programming or staffing at the other senior centers.
The City Council supported the decision.
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“We’ve got to take care of our seniors,” said Mayor Nate Duckett.
Northwest New Mexico Seniors declined to comment.
It is still unclear what the future of the meal program in Blanco will be. People who frequent the Blanco Senior Center said the layoffs included the senior center director.
The change may not be permanent, but it will help Blanco until decisions can be made.
"Our seniors and our senior centers are a high priority," said San Juan County Commissioner John Beckstead.
Jacquez didn’t go to the senior center during the week when meals were being served in Bloomfield, but she returned when the meals were delivered.
Veronica Ulibarri said she is glad to be receiving the meals from Bloomfield.
“It would be nice if we could get a cook here,” she said.
Ulibarri said it feels as if they are getting smaller servings now that the meals are being delivered. She said she is still hungry after eating and sometimes makes a second meal at her home.
The transportation to Bloomfield led to rumors that the Blanco Senior Center would be closing its doors forever. But Stark said that will not happen.
Even after hearing that the county does not plan to close the senior center, Jacquez remained unconvinced. She said there have been rumors for two years that the senior center would close.
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“I don’t feel that they have treated this community right,” she said.
She said the county should bring back a cook and a director, and added that the community may be willing to pitch in to keep the senior center operating.
“I think there’s a lot of people here who would donate to keep it open,” she said.
Blanco is one of two senior centers owned by the county. Both Blanco and Lower Valley senior centers faced struggles with staffing due to personnel decisions made by Northwest New Mexico Seniors, according to Stark. He said Northwest New Mexico Seniors provided five employees to Lower Valley Senior Center and four employees to Blanco Senior Center.
He said Bloomfield has also stepped up to deliver the 11 home-delivered meals previously served through the Blanco Senior Center.
“San Juan County is not closing either one of our two facilities,” he said during a County Commission meeting on Feb. 18.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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