Hamilton County Commission plans to fund new programs in senior services levy

CINCINNATI -- Former Cincinnati Mayor Dwight Tillery’s Center for Closing the Health Gap could end up getting $1 million in local taxpayer funding after all.

Tucked away in a Hamilton County Commission-backed plan to put an increased senior services levy on the ballot are three new programs that could cost taxpayers more money.

Commissioners used a months-long process, paid outside consultants more than $230,000, and sought advice from a citizen-led board to help decide which programs will receive funding in each levy and which won’t.

Yet these new suggested programs – homeless respite care, a visiting nurses program and a health university initiative – bypassed that process and faced little outside scrutiny over how and if they would fit into the senior services levy.

The Health Gap, which will get $750,000 in the city of Cincinnati’s newest budget, has proposed running the health university, Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune told WCPO Wednesday. The nonprofit, which works to alleviate minority health disparities across Cincinnati, did not immediately return WCPO’s requests for comment.

Portune would like as much as $250,000 to go toward the health university, he said.

“There would be a very narrow focus on assisting seniors to navigate the complex health care system,” Portune said.

Earlier this year, the Health Gap returned $250,000 of the $1 million grant it received from the city in its 2017 fiscal budget, saying the nonprofit no longer had a need for the funds.

DOC080917levy-08092017115950 by WCPO Web Team on Scribd

This happened in the aftermath of two separate investigations by WCPO and the Enquirer into the Health Gap’s spending practices. An audit found the city had little oversight on the Health Gap’s spending and, in some cases, billed the city for vague work. 

“It doesn’t surprise me they’re going somewhere else,” said Cincinnati City Councilman Kevin Flynn, of the possible county funding. Flynn has been critical of the Health Gap’s city funding.

“It’s disheartening as a county taxpayer and a city taxpayer.”

Flynn, who has fought to introduce strict performance measures for nonprofits getting city funds, cautioned the commissioners to consider the same for any nonprofits that get funding through levies.

Now, one commissioner is questioning how much the county’s seniors will actually benefit from new programs such as the Health Gap that Portune proposed adding to the Senior Services Levy.

“I have no idea what this health university initiative is,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel, the board’s lone Republican. “You had no transparency. The public didn’t get to weigh in and have a chance of what was actually being funded.”

To be clear, no final decisions have been made as far as how much levy funding these new programs would get, and which programs would get the money. Portune said that will happen next year.

But voters will decide on the five-year senior services levy increase – which will cost homeowners of a $100,000 home an extra $10.59 per year – in November. The levy currently brings in $19 million a year and, if expanded, would begin collecting $25.6 million every year.

Portune and fellow Democrat Denise Driehaus voted Wednesday to put the measure on the ballot while Monzel cast the solo ‘no’ vote.

Most of those funds will go toward the services the levy has traditionally paid for, such as Meals on Wheels, in-home healthcare, homemaking services and transportation.

An increase in the levy, Portune said, was necessary to avoid a backlog in services.

“We need to make sure we’re supporting the elements of the elderly services programs that are working to keep seniors in their homes for as long as possible,” Portune said. “It saves taxpayers money in the long run.”

The Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio oversees those services.

Last year, the council helped 5,800 seniors and expects to serve more as Hamilton County’s population continues to grow and age, said Ken Wilson, agency’s vice president of operations.

“The program is designed to keep people safe and independent in their homes for as long as possible,” Wilson said. “We’re projecting that number will grow, and an increase in the senior services levy will allows us to meet the growing community need.”

For the three new programs Portune has suggested in the levy, the county plans to put out competitive bids for the work in 2018. Commissioners would also have to approve their levy funding. 

“That’s all subject to finalization,” he said. “When we get the bids back in on these items, it’s (going to be) properly vetted and voted on again by the board.”

Portune said he would ideally like to see an additional $1 million go to the new programming and certain nonprofits have already pitched running the new programs. 

The programs Portune told WCPO would seek funding:

  • $500,000 – for the Visiting Nurse Association, a nonprofit that provides in-home healthcare 
  • $250,000 – The Center for Respite Care, a nonprofit that provides medical care for the city’s homeless. Portune said the program would specifically focus on seniors who are homeless or on the brink of losing their home. 
  • $250,000 – The Health University Initiative, which the Center for Closing the Health Gap has pitched to the county, Portune said. The program would help seniors learn about the health system. He also raised the possibility of funding for looking at senior transportation issues in the county.

A description on the Health Gap's website says the nonprofit is currently working to develop a community health university

These programs had initially applied for funding in the indigent care levy, which helps the county’s poorest residents pay for health care. Those additions to the indigent care levy would have required an increase in taxes.

A review committee recommended both the Visiting Nurses Association and the Center for Respite Care be funded through the indigent care levy.

But the Health Gap, which initially requested $400,000 annually from the county, was not included in the committee’s final recommendations for the indigent care levy.

On Wednesday, just hours before a 4 p.m. Board of Election deadline to get the levies on the ballot, the board agreed to find funding for the new programs in the increased senior services levy. The indigent care levy, meanwhile, stayed flat.

“The three new policy programs … will all impact critical needs faced by seniors that wish to remain living independently and in their own homes as long as possible,” Portune wrote.

The Visiting Nurse Association focuses on serving seniors, according to its website.

It's more unclear how many seniors the Health Gap or the Center for Respite Care serve. Their pitches, made to the levy review committee this spring, did not include a primary focus on senior health.

“It was all for a shell game of shifting these programs around,” Monzel said Wednesday of the proposed changes.

Meanwhile, Portune criticized Monzel for casting a vote against the senior levy.

After all, who votes against a senior levy?

“The issue has been told, and told, and told: People are not going to vote against seniors,” Portune said.

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