EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 21, 2013

Lawmakers want county to keep senior daycare

Senior daycare

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — DERRY — State representatives from Rockingham County are promising political payback for county commissioners who decided to eliminate a senior adult daycare program.

That could come in the county budget process or at the ballot box, they said.

The legislators' public attack on the commissioners came during a press conference Thursday night at the county nursing home in Brentwood.

"We castigated the two county commissioners who voted to close down the daycare center," said Rep. Walter Kolodziej, R-Windham.

He said he hopes the commissioners, Kevin Coyle of Londonderry and Katharin Pratt of Hampton, will reconsider.

"If not, they will have a difficult time dealing with us through the year and we will work against their re-election," Kolodziej said.

Commissioners split, 2-1, last month when deciding to close the program after 33 years for financial reasons.

Commissioner Thomas Tombarello of Sandown dissented.

Rep. Mary Griffin, R-Windham, was more diplomatic than Kolodziej, but no less emphatic on the need for commissioners to reconsider.

"The commissioners want to make a lot of money for Rockingham County," she said. "I think we're supposed to take care of people first."

Griffin wants the commissioners to sit down with legislators and discuss ways to spare the program, which currently serves 17 people.

"Let's work together," Griffin said.

Coyle said the program averages about 12 seniors participating daily, but has lost money for years, more than $1 million over a decade.

He said there are private companies providing the same service in Derry and Hampstead.

"We shouldn't be in competition with them and losing taxpayer dollars," Coyle said.

He represents 100,000 people in communities that include Londonderry, Derry and Windham. He said not one of them participates.

He expressed disappointment with the criticism from lawmakers.

"It's unfortunate they've taken that tack," Coyle said. "It is unfortunate they are trying to play politics with this."

The commissioners said they reached their decision after a years-long effort to improve finances and participation, including an intensive effort to boost enrollment this year.

"It has limped along far below capacity for years," Pratt said.

They fell short of a goal to have average daily participation at 80 percent of the 27-person capacity.

Legislators didn't provide any help when commissioners were making an effort to improve the program, Coyle said.

"Really, we should be working together," he said. "They want it their way."

It was legislators, meanwhile, who pressed commissioners starting several years ago to put the program in a break-even situation, Pratt said.

"They fired the shot across our bow," she said.

Then, when commissioners took steps to preserve the program, legislators accepted those initiatives.

"They embraced it right along with us," Pratt said.

The lawmakers dispute the commissioners' view of finances, maintaining it would only take $45,000 to keep the program operating.

"We don't feel they are right," Griffin said. "You can't write off people's lives." .

But Pratt said the program requires more money, including the need to replace a bus that would cost at least $30,000 more.

Rep. Kevin Waterhouse, R-Windham, agrees with Griffin.

"We are very disappointed. Two people out of the whole county made this decision," Waterhouse said. "It's not taking care of our most vulnerable."

Waterhouse appealed to citizens to call the commissioners and let them know they value the program.

One possibility is the program could close at year's end because that's what commissioners have decided, with legislators pushing to revive it during budget deliberations next year.

"It's very possible," Waterhouse said. "I hope the first step is to use the budget process to make sure they know we want this program funded. They can close the program. It's up to us to convince them or a future commission to reopen it."

Rep. Norm Major, R-Plaistow, said the matter is really in the hands of voters, to get them to convince commissioners to change their minds.

"That's the only way this could happen," he said. "It's a sad state of affairs."

If the program does close, Major said the county delegation, through the budget process, could approve money to restart it, while restricting the funds specifically for that purpose so commissioners couldn't spend them elsewhere.

Major said commissioners should be proud of a program no one criticizes.

"This is no way to treat our county elderly population," Major said.

Pratt said she doesn't expect commissioners to change their minds before the end of the year or next year in the budget process.

"Frankly, I think it's unkind to string clients and their families along, thinking somehow this situation is going to change," Pratt said.