Puyallup Herald

Senior citizens, Milton at odds over use of Activity Center. ‘Everybody’s very upset.’

Senior Society grapples with changes at the Milton Activity Center

A new administration in the city of Milton brought in changes in how the Milton Activity Center is used. The Milton Senior Society feels pushed out.
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A new administration in the city of Milton brought in changes in how the Milton Activity Center is used. The Milton Senior Society feels pushed out.

Members of the Milton Senior Society are frustrated by changes made at the Milton Activity Center, which they say are “pushing out” seniors.

Over the past year, they’ve arrived at the center to find locks on refrigerator doors, their belongings removed from the walls.

Now, the nonprofit faces payments to use the facility and to store goods in the shed — something it hasn’t encountered before.

The changes from the city came without warning for the nonprofit, which has used the activity center for more than 30 years without issue, said Milton Senior Society board member Cathy Boyle. The Milton Activity Center, also called the MAC, is located at 1000 Laurel Street and shares a space with the Milton Police Department.

“Everybody’s very upset,” Boyle said. “(The seniors) don’t feel appreciated. They do a lot for the city.”

The changes make it harder for the nonprofit to provide its services, said Boyle. Those include weekly community lunches, bingo and pinochle game nights and quilting and arts and crafts groups.

“They’ve really never given us a specific reason why,” Boyle said about the changes.

Milton Mayor Shanna Styron-Sherrell says that’s not the case.

Styron-Sherrell became Milton’s mayor in 2018. During her campaign, she said citizens asked why a single nonprofit had so much control over the MAC building — and why other groups, such as youth-service groups, didn’t.

“We have a senior society operating their nonprofit out of a city-funded building,” Stryon-Sherrell said. “Currently they occupy an entire activity center. We have no access to a public-funded building.”

After an audit, city officials realized some things needed to change.

The situation is a gifting of public funds if the nonprofit can occupy the center without providing an equal exchange of services for the city, Styron-Sherrell said.

Milton’s City Code dictates that “the primary purpose of the Milton Activity Center is to serve and enhance the lives of older adults ... and to provide a facility for community activities and services.” It doesn’t specify that those services have to be provided by a specific entity, Styron-Sherrell pointed out.

In 2011, the city’s activity center coordinator position was eliminated, leaving the city to explore “partnership opportunities,” according to city documents. With dwindling funding available, the Milton Senior Society stepped forward to help provide services for the city.

“The city should have revamped the senior programs and relationship with the Milton Senior Society when the prior administration cut funding to the Senior Department and programming,” the city stated in a letter to the nonprofit last year. “We cannot speak to why this didn’t happen, but this administration cannot turn a blind eye to the gifting of public funds.”

The city is currently drafting a formalized agreement with the Senior Society that includes an excise tax, which officials say they’re required to impose under state law.

The letter also pointed to the city’s facility rental rules as the reason for removing the nonprofit’s plaques, awards and artwork from the walls. Styron-Sherrell said that society belongings were removed from the wall the night that a wedding was scheduled at the facility.

As for the locks on the fridge, that was an effort on behalf of the city to regulate the meal program, which provides meals to seniors.

“We’re liable for the food that’s being served,” Styron-Sherrell said.

The Milton Senior Society takes issue with the lack of warning before those actions were taken, Boyle said.

Members also argue that they do provide an equal exchange of services to maintain their current use of the facility. In addition to their weekly events, the nonprofit bakes cookies, volunteers in the annual tree lighting and shops for families in need during the holiday season.

“A lot of the things we do are for the community,” said Milton Senior Society member Paula Gierke.

The city wants to provide more services at the activity center.

“We want youth activities, period,” said Styron-Sherrell. “Our city has no youth activities, and our demographic is changing very quickly.”

That doesn’t mean getting rid of senior services, the mayor added.

“We’re not eliminating seniors services at all. It’s just the city has to oversee those activities,” she said. “We are prepared if (the Milton Senior Society) decide(s) not to help us anymore.”

Milton Senior Society members argue that making the facility more available to for-profit entities could put the city at risk of paying back a $250,000 Department of Commerce Milton Youth & Families Grant that was awarded in 2014. The grant was used to renovate the activity center specifically for police and senior services.

The city reached out to the Department of Commerce through email in June 2018 to ensure they were complying with the grant.

“As long as the facility is used by both seniors and the police department until (1/12/2027), you’re just fine,” wrote a spokesperson for the Department of Commerce. “There is no specified percentage spelled out in either the contract or the legislative intent.”

Styron-Sherrell said the city doesn’t have to use a specific nonprofit to provide senior services, and that the Milton Senior Society is “blurring the lines” between senior services and its nonprofit.

“I sympathize with them and understand their concerns, but what I hear come out of them just isn’t true,” she said.

Society members voiced their concerns about the grant to the Department of Commerce in September.

The department responded in an email, stating that the city could use the building for other purposes, but “any changes that essentially make the facility funded with public dollars into a profit generating center for the city or providers” could trigger a repayment, as “senior centers” generally are understood “to be facilities that provide free or low cost services, often with a lot of volunteer labor from local senior organizations.”

The Milton Senior Society hired a lawyer to facilitate communication between the nonprofit and the city, but no legal action has been taken.

The city and nonprofit have had several meetings regarding the use of the MAC, but none have resolved the disagreements between the two groups.

“I think it’s great (the mayor) is trying to generate money, but I don’t think pushing seniors out is the way to do it,” Boyle said.

“I would just like the city the administration to sit down and work out something rather than going back and forth,” she added. “Tell us what they really want.”