Board aims to keep senior center open

The Costa Mesa Senior Center board on Tuesday requested $160,000 from a memorial foundation to replenish the center's dwindling funds.

If approved, the money would be debited in four transactions — starting May 1, 2014, and ending May 1, 2015 — from the Albert Dixon Memorial Foundation.

Board members voted 7 to 2 to approve the request, with board members Stella Adkins and Barbara Echan dissenting.

"We're going to keep hammering it to the city's attention," said board member Ron Frankiewicz. "We have three years worth of help to solve the financial issues. We've given everyone a fair warning. No one can say they didn't know."

The center established the Albert Dixon Memorial Foundation after receiving a large donation from the estate of a former member.

The foundation's primary objectives are "to provide funds for the disadvantaged and aged and to support the programs and activities of the Costa Mesa Senior Center," according to a Jan. 7 independent audit report.

The City Council last year voted to hire Costa Mesa-based Management Partners to investigate the center's finances. It spent several months reviewing paperwork and conducting 26 interviews.

The audit found that the senior center — since 1987 an independent nonprofit that now serves 300 to 400 seniors a day — will run out of money in its general fund by June.

After the city and Daily Pilot published the report, board members and staff began discussing ways to improve the center's financial outlook.

Members raised the idea of requesting money from the foundation, which proved to be controversial.

In a somewhat tense debate Tuesday, several seniors in the audience as well as Adkins voiced concerns about the foundation money replenishing the general fund instead of going toward activities at the senior center.

"The Albert Dixon money is to be used for seniors and programs and not everyday operating expenses for the center," Adkins said.

She suggested that staff provide the board with legal documentation proving that Dixon did not specify how the money was to be used, as Aviva Goelman, the center's executive director, asserted several times during the discussion.

Frankiewicz agreed that the "rumor is something to look into," but encouraged board members to act quickly and approve the transfer.

"If you want to delay it, we'll close the doors because we don't have money," he said. "Most of the costs of the things we do at the center are for the benefit of the seniors. In my mind this does not exceed that."

The board also took steps to appoint Adkins, fellow board member Paul Flanagan and Senior Advisory Committee member Marilynn Miller to a commission that will work with city officials to address the financial crisis and the 15 suggestions outlined in the audit.

Board President Judy Lindsay and Frankiewicz have already met with city CEO Tom Hatch and Councilwoman Wendy Leece to begin discussions.

They spoke about the city's role in improving the financial health of the senior center and what type of control city officials will have in the management of the organization, Lindsay said.

The city could provide more financial support in the future, but nothing has been decided, she said.

In the meantime, the center will save money by cutting several classes and charging for activities that were previously free for seniors, Goelman said.

"As much as we'd like to, we can't afford to keep offering everything for free," she said.

Staff and the board have not yet come to any conclusions about how to cut costs at the senior center, she said.

Goelman blamed negative publicity for the lack of fundraising.

She said the center will focus on appointing board members who have significant ties to corporations and other local businesses to increase fundraising capabilities.

"The board's job is to fund-raise," Goelman said, "but they leave it up to the staff."

Lindsay said the city does not intend to close the center. "We will work in partnership [with the city] and make this center shine again," she said.

[For the record, 5:06 p.m. Feb. 20: An earlier version incorrectly reported the vote as 10 to 1. It was actually 7 to 2, with two members dissenting.]

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