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Senior meals fall under the county's budget ax

County may privatize hot meals program

Senior citizens in Mabton and Granger are looking elsewhere for hot lunches provided through a county program.

Jerry Baldoz is the director of the food service department in Yakima County, and he said hot meal programs for the elderly in those two towns were eliminated due to budget issues.

He says Gov. Gregoire looked at making cuts to the meal service program statewide about a year ago.

Legislators, though, gave the meal program - which includes meals on wheels - a reprieve with a sales tax on bottled water, candy and soft drinks.

Voters repealed those taxes last November and Baldoz said it eliminated $100,000 from his budget over a two-year period. That total represents 40,000 senior meals lost over the two-year cycle.

The decision was then made last month to close the meal programs in Granger and Mabton, instead providing seniors in those towns hot lunches in Sunnyside and Grandview, respectively.

The county also laid off three employees in the meal program.

Gaye Vandermyn is one of three volunteers who established the Mabton Community Center and helped organize the meal program there.

Vandemyn said the county meal program provided not only meals, but $200 a month to cover utility costs.

She said the community center offered the lunches four days a week, serving approximately 12 to 16 Mabton seniors each time.

Vandermyn said the county's decision to close the Mabton meal program means fewer seniors there will receive the meals. Even though People for People will take Mabton seniors to Grandview's meal site for free, Vandermyn said only six have signed up so far.

"Some of them can't or won't go," Vandermyn said of Mabton seniors. "It isn't just a loss of food and support here for them, but gathering with friends and neighbors they knew in Mabton."

She adds that the loss of the utility money means the community center itself is also endangered.

"Our difficulty here is without the $200 a month we may not be able to keep the center open for other programs," Vandermyn said.

Vandermyn said she and the other two volunteers who started the center, Bertha Olivarez and Betty Carlyle, are unsure about the center's future prospects.

"It's really unfortunate," she said. "I'm discouraged about our ability to continue as a community center."

There is a possible light at the end of this tunnel, though, as Baldoz said there's hope the Granger and Mabton meal sites may re-open as early as this June.

That's because Yakima County will be accepting bids from private, non-profit organizations to run the senior nutrition program.

"There's a very strong possibility that they may open in mid-summer," Baldoz said, noting bids will be opened this March or April.

"The program can be operated much more cost effectively by a private non-profit," he says. "Administrative costs are higher for the county to run it."

Baldoz said early indications are that whoever takes over the senior meal program will likely retain the current staff.

"It doesn't behoove them to start up with new kitchen staff," he said. "There may be some restructuring, but I think they'll hang on to as many experienced people as possible."

Ironically, while Mabton and Granger residents are concerned over what could be a short-term loss of senior meals, it's Baldoz who is uncertain about the long-term picture.

If Yakima County contracts with a private non-profit to run the meal program, Baldoz said he's not sure if he will still have his job.

He said some of the bidders have indicated they'd like him to stay on board.

Baldoz at one point considered retiring last month, but says now he'll stay with the program if the group receiving the bid wants him to.

"I want to stay with the program until the (transition to a private non-profit) process is done," he said.

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