After months of strained negotiations with the Costa Mesa Senior Center board of directors, the city might take over the ailing 19th Street center sooner than anticipated.
City staff issued a recommendation Friday that the City Council terminate the existing contract with the nonprofit center set to expire in June 2015. The city would take control within three months.
"Upon invoking the 90-day clause, city staff intends to work alongside the existing senior center staff to assure the continuation of programs and services as well as a smooth transition," the staff report states.
The council will also consider several other staff recommendations regarding senior center operations during a special meeting Tuesday evening.
If approved, the city will absorb several functions, including staffing, distributing the center's newsletter, building maintenance, and activities and programs, said Assistant City CEO Tammy Letourneau.
Municipal officials and center board members have spent two months drafting and discussing the terms of a four-page proposed agreement in which City Hall would take over almost all of the center's finances and operations.
Though the center is not solvent, the board has refused to sign the document until the city agrees to amend the indemnity clause in the draft that holds the board accountable for any lawsuits that may arise from layoffs. One condition of the city's takeover is that the board lay off employees, who would be replaced by city-selected staffers.
Staff is pushing the council to not pursue the agreement in an attempt to move the takeover along at a faster pace, Letourneau said.
"Due to the grave financial circumstances facing the [center], and the progressive decline in services, immediate action is required to provide the city's seniors with the care, attention and benefits they deserve," the staff report states.
In past meetings, board members pushed for the city to amend the indemnity clause so that the board would be protected against personnel lawsuits, contending that the decision to terminate employees rests with the city.
However, city officials rejected the argument, pointing to their exclusion from, and lack of voting rights in, closed-session meetings where the layoffs are being discussed.
City staff is recommending that the council not approve the senior center board's request, effectively tossing out the draft agreement.
Financial and organizational problems come to light
An influx of complaints from the city's senior population last year prompted the council to hire Costa Mesa-based Management Partners to investigate the center's operations. It spent several months reviewing paperwork and conducting 26 interviews to gain insight into the culture of the center.
The audit confirmed 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.
The facility at 695 W. 19th St. operates somewhat autonomously, but relies on the city for a portion of its funding. The city annually grants the center $240,000. This fiscal year, the center also received an estimated $535,570 worth of in-kind services from the city, according to the audit.
For the last several months, city staff has become increasingly concerned about some of the issues taking place at the center, according to the staff report.
The city has received complaints about senior center staffers allegedly criticizing seniors and canceling popular classes, according to the report.
Many clients who approach the city to complain are afraid to identify themselves and believe senior center staff will retaliate and shame them in front of other seniors, Letourneau said.