Diane Pope, who attends the Linwood Senior Center, reads the senior center's newsletter. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)
Diane Pope started visiting the Linwood Senior Center after her husband passed away 13 years ago. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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Diane Pope, 72, first ventured into Linwood Senior Center six years ago. Her husband had died years earlier, and Pope felt “just lonely, lonely, lonely.” 

As a shy and introverted person, she was skeptical whether she could find community there. But after stopping by Linwood for the first time, a staff member chased her down and told her to give it a chance. She did. And she found the camaraderie she sought. 

“I met a lot of friends there,” Pope said. “Good, close ones.” Once, a friend from the senior center dropped everything to take Pope to the emergency room when she pulled a neck muscle.

Linwood is one of 18 senior centers in Sedgwick County that serve as community and resource hubs for seniors. La Familia Senior Center, offers a referral line in English and Spanish for community members looking for housing, immigration information and other resources.

At the Northeast center, seniors can use computers and the internet when many don’t have them at home, said director Carnesha Tucker. The Linwood center assists seniors in finding the cheapest prescription drug options on their Medicare plan. Five of the six centers in Wichita are located in ZIP codes with disproportionately high poverty levels.

Yet the county’s funding for senior centers has remained largely stagnant for a decade, including in this year’s recommended 2022-23 budget, according to Deputy County Manager Tim Kaufman — even as the number of seniors in Sedgwick County shoots up.

With the population of individuals older than 60 rising more than six times as fast as the total Sedgwick County population, local tax funding per senior decreased about 35% between 2011 and 2020.

The local aging tax funds several other programs, including grocery shopping for seniors and an employment program, which assists seniors in finding jobs. Funding for both has stayed stagnant or decreased over the last decade, according to Laurel Alkire, executive director of Senior Services of Wichita, which runs the programs. 

“Aging is just not a priority for anybody,” Alkire said. “That’s what it comes down to.”

Sedgwick County seniors advocate for more funding

$35,000 a year. 

That’s how much the Oaklawn Senior Center receives from Sedgwick County to employ a director, pay utility bills and offer at least 40 educational events a year.

“The salary budget is only $22,000,” said Andreé Sisco, a board member of the Oaklawn Improvement District and member of Sedgwick County’s Aging Advisory Council. “You’re not going to get anybody to come work for that.” 

The Oaklawn Improvement District includes money in its own general fund to pay a higher director’s salary. But some cities, including Wichita, don’t put any dollars toward senior centers.

At Linwood Senior Center, director Cherise Langenberg must find volunteers to staff the center to take a vacation. At Northeast Senior Center, Tucker doesn’t have funds to pay for a company to teach a computer class. 

The Northeast Senior Center offers exercise classes, crochet classes and computer classes, among others. Many are run by volunteers due to lack of funding. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

What frustrates Sisco is that Sedgwick County voters approved the creation of a levy of up to one mill of property tax to pay for senior-related services in 1982. The “up to” phrasing has allowed the county to decrease the mill levy in order to keep the total local dollars going to senior services relatively stagnant.   

“They are not at what they agreed to when they took the vote years ago,” Sisco said.

A mill levy is the tax rate applied to the assessed value of property. One mill is one dollar per $1,000 dollars of assessed value.

Annette Graham, director of the Sedgwick County Department on Aging, added that the pandemic brought an influx of federal funding to her department, including dollars for nutrition programs and for in-home and community-based services. This increased the total Department on Aging budget in 2021 and in the proposed 2022 budget as compared to previous years. 

The future of aging for Sedgwick County seniors

In 2019, County Manager Tom Stolz asked Wichita State University’s Public Policy and Management Center to analyze whether the county spent an appropriate amount on aging services.

The report, presented to the Sedgwick County Commission in June, noted the decrease in local tax funding per senior over the last decade. It also suggested that the department needs “resources to respond to the growing aging population” as well as a discussion around the mill levy.

In an Aug. 11 commission meeting, Commissioners Jim Howell and Lacey Cruse both said the shrinking per-capita senior funding needed to be addressed.

We have got to take a look at the total level of funding for our senior services … With a population that increases and the additional allocation of resources not increasing, I think there’s a real problem.

Lacey Cruse, Sedgwick County commissioner

Meanwhile, the future of senior centers should be studied as younger seniors use senior centers less than older seniors, Graham wrote in a follow-up email.

In a June staff meeting, Cruse suggested integrating senior centers with intergenerational community hubs, like community centers, pools and libraries.

But over in Linwood, Pope said that the neighborhood recently lost its library and its pool. And senior center directors maintain the need for an independent center.

“Not that intergenerationalism isn’t important, but seniors need to have their own path,” Langenberg said.

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.