City workers begin operating Costa Mesa Senior Center

<i>This post has been corrected, as noted below.</i>

Seven city staffers welcomed seniors with breakfast and coffee at the Costa Mesa Senior Center early Wednesday.

It was a takeover, but a friendly one by all appearances. The tensions that some had anticipated when city staffers moved in didn’t materialize, even though the senior center employees are being phased out.

The Costa Mesa City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to terminate the current agreement between the city and the corporation that operates the facility.

The move started a 90-day takeover process during which the city will institute a variety of reforms to help improve services. The city, which owns the struggling center, will also operate it indefinitely.

The senior center has been plagued by financial and operational problems over the past several months, leading to a decline in services, said city Assistant CEO Tammy Letourneau.

City staff will be present in the senior center’s library to answer questions, she said.

Improvements to the building will be made during the transition, with workers operating alongside senior center staff, whose last day at the West 19th Street facility will be Sept. 7.

“We’re not here to step on anyone’s toes,” Letourneau said Wednesday morning before entering the building. “We’re just here to be helpful.”

The council approved the city’s plan for facility improvements, which include new paint, carpet, furniture, landscaping and patio furniture.

A private security guard was stationed outside the center while city staff entered the building. The guard will be present during business hours to deter homeless people from gathering nearby, a persistent concern, according to city staff.

Before the first senior had arrived Wednesday morning, city employees were busy setting up tables and laying out various breakfast items.

Signs reading “meet your city staff” were taped above a copy of a letter from frequent council majority critic Margaret Mooney urging board members to be wary of the city’s takeover.

The irony wasn’t lost on several of the seniors, who commented on the placement as they entered the library for breakfast.

Letourneau greeted the seniors, some returning after a months-long absence from the facility.

Mary Blanset, 90, of Costa Mesa has frequented the senior center for the past 12 years. City staff brought her a sprinkled doughnut and coffee as she sat in her usual spot on one of the couches in the lobby.

“The service here is pretty good,” she said to one of the staffers.

The city’s presence at the center didn’t come as a surprise to board member Sue Healey, who anticipated the move after the council’s decision just 12 hours earlier.

“I already see new life coming in here,” she said. “Everyone feared change, but it’s going to be positive.”

[For the record, 3:40 p.m. June 12: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Margaret Mooney taped a letter warning of a city takeover to a pillar at the senior center. In fact, she wrote the letter, but it is unknown who taped it to the pillar.]