Henderson seniors called to boycott Heritage Park over fee hikes

Herbert Gutin enjoys visiting the Heritage Park Senior Facility in Henderson almost every day. So when someone called suggesting he do otherwise, well, the 79-year-old hung up.

“I got a call but I don’t listen to that,” Gutin said at the facility Thursday. The male voice started to tell him he shouldn’t go to the center because of recent changes by the city, but Gutin cut the caller short:

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Don’t call me again.”

Gutin got the call shortly after the City Council’s May 6 unanimous approval of nearly $2.02 million in city fee increases and cost savings to help bridge a large budget shortfall, many impacting the senior community. The changes included raising the senior meal price from a recommended $1.50 donation to $2.50 donation, eliminating the weekend food program at the facility, and reducing hours at the facility and other recreation centers.

The Gutin call does not appear to be an isolated incident. A discussion of the calls urging seniors to stay away from the facility happened during the city’s Senior Citizens Advisory Commission meeting at City Hall on Wednesday.

Judie Boyer, president of the Henderson Seniors’ Auxiliary who is at the facility almost daily, told the commission she has heard that many people have received such calls.

“I’ve heard from different people that somebody’s making phone calls and telling them to boycott the center,” Boyer said. “I can’t imagine where it’s coming from, however enough people have said it that you begin to believe it.”

How organized the callers are in targeting Heritage Park patrons or where they would have gotten a phone list of members is not known.

Henderson spokeswoman Kim Becker said the city heard rumors of the anonymous calls in late May, but did not know anyone who had received a call until Thursday. While the city does not believe the calls to be widespread, officials are looking to see if anyone shared personal information from a city database containing Heritage Park patron’s personal information.

The city served 5,560 meals in the facility cafeteria in May, a decrease from the 7,722 meals served in May 2013. The numbers have continued to trend downward the first two weeks in June dropping to 2,299 this year from 3,252 the same time last year.

However, the numbers at the Downtown Senior Center have remained flat, and Meals on Wheels has seen a slight increase.

Bob Murnane, the senior director of Henderson Public Works, Parks and Recreation, said there are likely many factors for the Heritage Park downturn beyond any boycott.

“We anticipated there would be a decline in the number of congregate meals served due to a number of factors, including changes to the menu, snowbirds leaving for the summer, and increases to the meal prices and suggested donation,” Murnane said.

“The number of meals served is greatly dependent on what is on the menu, so adjustments such as transitioning away from rib roast and pulled pork to lasagna and chicken dishes certainly have an impact. But we believe that patrons who need these meals the most are still taking part in the congregate program,” he said.

Whatever the reason, where there used to be a line outside the dining room, tables sometimes are not even half full during the two-hour lunch time starting at 11 a.m., Boyer said. The room seats approximately 180, but only 75 were seated Thursday when lunch started. While others arrived after lunch started, the room never filled to capacity.

“We used to have people waiting for lunch, but that’s the drastic change,” Boyer said.

Henderson is also battling a trust issue with the senior community and false rumors ranging from that the transportation program to the facility is being discontinued, to the city wants to squeeze out seniors to use the facility for other purposes.

Corey Clark, city’s recreation services manager, told the commission that he and other city employees will be at the facility July 1 to talk directly with seniors.

“We’re really trying to mobilize a counter-rumor campaign where we can actually get some truth telling out there in the operation,” Clark said.

Dan Hyde, chairman of the Senior Citizens Advisory Commission, said the group needs to work with the city to do a better job getting the word out that lunch price is still a suggested donation, not a required payment if someone can not afford the cost.

One of the concerns is that if the numbers do not return, the federal grants that help support the daily lunches could be impacted. Clark said the city has already submitted the grant application for the fiscal year that starts in October, so it would not be until October 2015 that the grant that helps underwrite the meal program would be affected.

Becker said if the numbers stay down, the city could lose as much as $60,000 in grant funding next year.

Business in the cafe is also down after price increases — some sandwiches went from $2 to $4, cookies went from 25 cents to 75 cents. The cafe does not receive grants and must be self-sustaining, Becker said, or it could be jeopardy of closing.

Peter Rivera, a regular patron at the facility, said while some have complained about the price increases, he believes the numbers will return.

“I think it will pick up again,” said Rivera after enjoying Thursday’s meal of sliced turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy and vegetables with milk. “Why would anyone boycott? Because if you want a good meal to eat, here’s the place to get it.”

Contact Arnold M. Knightly at aknightly@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3882. Find him on Twitter: @KnightlyGrind.

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