County should be goodwill hunting

“For God’s sake,” she said with no small measure of astonishment, “Don’t they realize they’re talking about food for old people?”

That reaction from my outraged wife, I suspect, is pretty typical of how most of the rest of us feel about news Mesa County officials seem to be content with the possibility the popular Gray Gourmet may be forced out of its longtime home by commissioners’ insistent on collecting market rate rent for an old county-owned building.

(Full disclosure: we have one relative currently subscribing to Gray Gourmet and both our mothers, for a time, also benefited from the daily meal service before their deaths.)

This latest unnecessary dust-up involving county leaders has been well-documented with Gary Harmon’s reporting here in the Sentinel and in Sunday’s spot-on editorial, aptly entitled “No good deed goes unpunished.” If you missed any of that, here’s the short story.

For decades, Gray Gourmet has provided meal service to seniors at its downtown location and via home delivery. Today, 18 drivers, part of a cadre of 250 volunteers, will fan out across the county, using their own vehicles to deliver most of the 450 daily meals. That’s about 120,000 meals annually, prepared and delivered by an organization that operates on $870,000 in annual funding from fees, grants and other sources. The suggested fee for each recipient is $3.50 per meal, though there’s a sliding scale for those who can’t afford the full price.

Originally a county program, it was rescued by St. Mary’s Hospital back in 1989 during another county budget crisis. When the county dropped its sponsorship of Gray Gourmet, it retained title to the building, charging token rent said to range from $25 to $100 per month and continuing to maintain the structure. That costs between $8,000 to $13,000 annually with occasional jumps for additional work. Last year, an unusual year, Mesa County put $52,000 into the facility.

That’s the summary for you bean counters, Commissioner Scott McInnis and county manager Frank Whidden included. Here’s the rest of the story.

For many of those receiving home delivery, that pre-noon visit by a Gray Gourmet volunteer may be the only social interaction they have that day. That meal might be the only balanced nutrition they get at a time in their lives where cooking for one or two is a troublesome chore that too often gives way to snacks rather than meals or to other unhealthy nutritional choices. That volunteer might also be the first to raise a flag about health issues or other problems in the home.

Here’s an obvious question. Would it be too much to expect to hear from Rose Pugliese and John Justman on this matter? Or is there just one commissioner running the show down at 6th and Rood on this and other matters such as the public safety initiative?

Here’s one possible answer to the county’s dilemma from just a few miles down the road.

Up in Crested Butte, the town government faced a similar issue. Many nonprofits and non-governmental organizations operate from town-owned facilities paying only token rents with taxpayers footing the bill for ongoing maintenance and repairs.

But instead of trying to bump rents to unaffordable top-of-the-market rates, they’re taking a different more compassionate and mutually beneficial approach. City officials are working with those tenants to gradually bring rents up to a level that will cover facility costs, a process that’s certainly fair but still recognizes the value those organizations provide to the community.

Here, for Gray Gourmet, that might mean a ten-fold increase to $1,000 per month, about one-fourth of the supposed market rate, with occasional joint fundraising to cover expenses in any year when something more is needed.

CEO Brian Davidson says it’s not a matter of whether St. Mary’s can afford market rate rent but that’s not the point.

What’s really at issue is whether Mesa County commissioners feel any responsibility at all for making certain a decades-old program benefiting seniors county-wide continues without distraction. Or whether they instead think the questionable possibility of making a few extra bucks off an aging county-owned structure is worth the turmoil and controversy they’re generating at a time when they need all the goodwill they can muster if they hope to pass their public safety sales tax issue in November.

Jim Spehar confesses to sometimes doing a little too much bean-county during his own time in public office. Comments always welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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