ST. LOUIS • A November ballot measure seeks to create senior citizen service funds in St. Charles County, St. Louis County and St. Louis that together would raise about $18 million a year in property taxes to help people stay in their homes longer.
More than 50, mainly small, Missouri counties already have created similar programs to help provide transportation, food, health care and other services. If the new measures pass, they would be the largest of their kind in the state.
Proposition S would levy a 5-cent property tax on every $100 of assessed value, which boils down to $9.50 a year on a home worth $100,000. Local boards would decide which needs are a priority for residents who are at least 60 years old.
Advocates say demand from the continued growth in the number of senior citizens far exceeds state and federal funding levels that are largely supported by the Older Americans Act, which pays for things like Meals on Wheels. They say local funding would pay for additional in-home services to help retirees put off moving into nursing homes.
“We came together because we saw huge demographic changes and the resources aren’t out there,” said Jamie Opsal, of the group Seniors Count of Greater St. Louis, which, along with area nonprofits, helped get Prop S on the three different ballots. “We can’t control federal and sometimes state funding levels, but we can try to make a difference in our own local communities so they can age in place.”
A private bed in a nursing home costs an average $84,000 a year in Missouri, or about four times as much as staying at home.
“We know that nursing homes are really important,” Opsal said. “But you aren’t independent one day and in need of 24-hour care the next. There is a gradual decline and that falls on family.”
She said 88 percent of in-home care is provided by families. That can create a lot of stress, particularly for the “sandwich generation,” comprised of people caring for their children and parents.
She helps makes her case with population charts. In 2010, there were 150,000 people in St. Louis County who were 65 and older, a number that is expected to spike to at least 260,000 by 2030. In St. Louis, the same age group is expected to jump from 35,000 to 70,000; in St. Charles County, 40,000 to 95,000.
Joe Brazil, of the St. Charles County Council, voted against having the measure on the November ballot.
“They talk about scraping to get by and then turning around and raising their taxes,” he said. “It’s kind of an oxymoron.”
Meanwhile, he said, there are too many taxes.
“It’s for the children or the senior citizens,” he said. “These are always great causes. I don’t know, where do you stop? It’s just the principle of raising taxes.”
Clay County, an urban and rural area just north of Kansas City, created its senior citizen services fund in 2003, after seeing the fruits of a similar fund in neighboring Platte County, said Tina Uridge, who oversees the program.
“Clay County wanted to have the same services,” she said. “We needed help with nutrition programs, transportation, in-home support services, home repair …”
Uridge said Clay County, which brings in about $2 million a year for the program, has also reduced the cost of life lines − or personal emergency response pendants − from $50 to $15 a month. She said 85 percent of the tax money collected goes to services.
“The need is growing and funding hasn’t kept up with the growing cost,” she said of traditional senior service programs. “This is an ability to strengthen communities.”
The Greene County Senior Citizens’ Services Fund in southwest Missouri seems particularly streamlined. Chuck Marinec, fund chairman, said 99.5 percent of its $2 million budget goes to program services.
He said there is one part-time employee who answers phones. Twenty-two organizations are contracted to do the rest, such as provide in-home services, legal help, transportation and food.
“We made a deliberate effort to utilize existing service providers,” said Marinec, a retiree who used to handle grants for the city of Springfield.
Dave Sykora, executive director of the St. Louis Area Agency on Aging, said he will request funding if the measure passes in the city. He said available federal resources don’t cut it. He said there are 140 people on the waiting list for home-delivered meals. He said there are other needs that fall outside of federal spending requirements.
“We get a lot of funding for senior centers,” he said. “We don’t get so much money for transportation, case management and other supportive services.”
Prop S reads the same on the ballot with the exception of St. Charles County, where, if passed, voters would revisit it in 10 years.
“You have to go back to the voters every so often and prove that this is really what they want,” said St. Charles County Executive Steven Ehlmann.
He likes that the fund would be locally controlled. In fact, Ehlmann, with the approval of the council, would be in charge of appointing seven board members to oversee it, which is similar to other funds set up for children and people with disabilities.
“We are very conscientious about who we appoint to those boards, and we make sure that organizations don’t feel entitled to the fund,” Ehlmann said. “We make them prove it every year.”
So far, he’s only received one phone call in opposition to the tax to help senior citizens. In response, the county executive thought the caller might be a good watchdog. He took the caller’s name down to be considered for a board position.
“Those are the kind of people who I’d like to appoint,” he said. “They will ask, ‘What did you do with the money?’”
Ehlmann, who supported getting Prop S on the ballot, assured that if St. Charles County voters pass it in November the senior services fund “will be administered as tightly as you have ever seen.”