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Senior centers try to maintain services in hard times
By Kimberly Pohl | Daily Herald Staff

Seniors take part in regular card games at the Palatine Township Senior Center, which hasn't yet had to cut any services or activities despite budget cuts.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Mary Tarbit, right, of Palatine, gathers with friends for a poker game at the Palatine Township Senior Center. The center's budget is being stretched because of the economic slowdown.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Seniors take part in regular card games at the Palatine Township Senior Center. Many senior centers are trying to avoid cuts while needs grow.


Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

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Published: 7/17/2008 12:08 AM

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Carol Reagan is exploring benign ways to cut expenses, hoping to avoid the alternative at all costs.

She's executive director of the Palatine Township Senior Citizens Council, which might be forced to reduce services should the current economic climate continue.

"We'd have to make some extremely hard choices," Reagan said. "Hopefully, it doesn't come to that."

Last year, more than 2,700 seniors from 70 communities took advantage of the council-operated Palatine Township Senior Center in Palatine. Some come for the mah-jongg, others for a well-balanced lunch at an affordable $2.25.

The center's social services staff also conduct in-home assessments, counseling and benefits eligibility screenings.

"Our goal is to keep older adults engaged in the community and independent as long as possible," Reagan said.

But she said it's increasingly hard to maintain both programs at their current levels and ultimately many seniors' quality of life. The nonprofit relies on piecemeal funding, in part from grants.

Palatine Township's contribution, limited by a tax cap, will drop by 8 percent to about $115,000 in fiscal year 2009. Funding from the federal Older Americans Act is down 43 percent to $46,000.

Palatine Park District's support for recreational activities is up 4 percent to $195,900, but Reagan says she foresees future cuts since the amount is a percentage of the assessed property values, which continue to fall.

So far, the Palatine Township Senior Citizens Council has been able to offset shrinking dollars by stepping up fundraising efforts, membership fees and adult day care participation. The group was able draft a 2009 budget totaling $741,000, essentially flat from the previous year.

"We're facing many challenges," the director said.

Adding to the burden is an aging population. According to a Metro Chicago Information Center demographer, Palatine Township's over-60 population will total about 18,000 in 2010, a 29 percent jump since 2000. Suburban Cook County will see a 15 percent increase to nearly 500,000.

Other area senior centers are feeling the crunch, too.

"The same folks who could make a gift in the past not only can't afford a gift, they're also coming in for services because their financial situation is so drastically changed," said Sharon Smith, Des Plaines Senior Center executive director. "It's the perfect storm."

Smith said her center, which serves more than 10,000 people, has reorganized staff and left a position unfilled to help compensate for budget cuts.

The Palatine Township center depends on four annual fundraisers. The next is a Girls Night Out Oct. 16 at Durty Nellie's, followed by a Nov. 8 wine tasting. There's a yearlong raffle and a big February gala.

But fundraisers can also be economy-driven, with less disposable income and fewer participating businesses affecting the bottom line, reports the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

"I don't have a crystal ball as to how (the fundraisers) are going to go, but it's a national trend, and I'm guessing Palatine's not any different," said Reagan.

A new program allows people to drop off donations at the I Sold It on eBay store at 780 E. Dundee Road in Palatine. It donates proceeds, minus commission, to the center.

Mary Tarbit, 86, of Palatine worked for 16 years in the kitchen for the Community Nutrition Network. Now she makes Meals on Wheels deliveries. She said they've lost some volunteer drivers because of gas prices, as well as residents who used to frequent the center.

"Many people are on a limited income, and it's wonderful anyone can come here," Tarbit said. "I hope the options continue because these people are so precious."