By Alex Lippa
---- — ATKINSON — More than 100 senior citizens packed the Atkinson Community Center yesterday, peppering Town Administrator Bill Innes with questions about the future of the town’s Elderly Affairs Department.
Innes held the meeting to address concerns seniors had following the recent firing of former police chief and elderly affairs director Phil Consentino.
Innes told seniors there would be no changes for the next 90 days while he serves as the department’s acting director.
“This is a good to great program,” Innes said. “I don’t anticipate a reduction in changes.”
Consentino attended the meeting and his firing Feb. 27 was raised by a few seniors. One senior asked Innes who fired Consentino and why. Consentino was employed by the town for 45 years. The reasons for the firing were not discussed.
Consentino declined to comment after the 90-minute forum ended. Selectmen have not given specific reasons for his firing following an independent investigation, saying only that it was “for cause” and job related.
Innes said he hopes to organize an eight- or nine-member committee that would recommend a new elderly affairs director to selectmen, who have the final say. The committee would also advise the director.
Under Consentino, the program was run through the Police Department. A dispatcher at the police station would take phone calls from seniors looking for transportation and assistance, and assign an elderly affairs worker to handle the request.
But seniors said they are worried about the program under new leadership.
“I never had a problem with it before,” said Jean Hardy, 82. “Whenever I needed something, someone would always go out of their way to help me.”
Consentino spoke against a plan outlined by Innes to create a town fund designed to track and audit all donations to the department. In the past, most of the money for the department came from a private charitable fund overseen by Consentino.
“If it goes into the town in a separate fund, (the department) doesn’t have control over that,” Consentino said. “It becomes a long, drawn-out process. The way we had it, was the way selectmen wanted it set up. It was open to the world.”
But Innes emphasized it wasn’t selectmen who wanted the system changed.
“I want to do this,” he said. “I want to be able to audit the books, I want to know where the money goes and how it’s spent.”
Innes said the town has $43,000 budgeted for the department this year, That money covers the salaries of the drivers, gasoline and maintenance. He added that he would like to see an extra car and driver added to the department.
One other issue that sparked discussion was the idea of separating the Elderly Affairs Department from the Police Department. Innes admitted there was potential for that to happen once the new director was appointed.
“I think they need to tread carefully before you spoil what’s really been successful,” said Wendy Doughty, 78.
Innes said he will look for volunteers for the advisory committee within the next few weeks. His ideal committee would include residents from several organizations and a mix of people over and under 60.