Council approves senior center takeover

The Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a sweeping series of reforms aimed at helping bring the city’s struggling senior center back into solvency.

The council’s move, which has been in the works for months, calls for City Hall oversight of the West 19th Street facility, a largely independent nonprofit corporation that has run into financial and operational troubles as of late.

Tuesday’s vote effectively started a 90-day takeover process, during which a variety of measures will be instituted. City staff members say the changes will transform the center into a first-class operation.

The measures include making various facility improvements — new painting, carpeting, furniture and landscaping — restoring programs and hiring an interim director, Eloisa Espinoza, who spent 13 years heading Fullerton’s senior center. The council also gave the go-ahead to city CEO Tom Hatch to hire a private security firm — a move that could help ease seniors’ concerns about homeless people gathering near the downtown center, according to city staff.

“I think it’s time to move forward,” said Councilman Gary Monahan, adding that he had “heard enough” of the problems facing the center.

“I think we are rescuing the senior center,” said Councilwoman Wendy Leece, adding that the council’s action was not a “hostile takeover. We have been working on this for over a year.”

The senior center’s problems came to light after a city-funded independent audit, released in January, predicted a “fiscal crisis” for the organization.

Though independent of City Hall control, the center has come to rely on considerable city funding: $240,000 annually and more than $500,000 worth of in-kind services each year. The city also owns the building, a 20,000-square-foot facility that opened in 1992 and serves 300 to 400 seniors daily.

The takeover measures are expected to cost about $300,000 annually — an increase of $60,000 over the current arrangement, said Assistant City CEO Tammy Letourneau.

Senior center board member Barbara Echan compared the facility to a sinking boat that needs rescue from the Coast Guard. She also alleged misguided priorities by the center’s leadership, who she said don’t provide disposable coffee cups but can pay for a lavish dinner for volunteers.

Board President Judy Lindsay said she is dismayed by the negative media attention directed at the center and poor fundraising results. She alleged that the center’s staff and board have been “treated with disdain” in the takeover process and that she feels “bullied and put out to pasture.”

Mayor Jim Righeimer, who urged everyone to work cooperatively during the transition, compared the city’s current setup with the center to more of a lease agreement. That agreement, he said, was seemingly “set up to fail” when it was enacted years ago.

Upon adjourning the meeting, he declared: “Let the healing begin.”