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Frank Kranitz, of Granite Falls, left, serves lunch Friday to Sandra Ryer, of Granite Falls, and others at the Granite Falls Senior Citizens Center. The Prairie Five Senior Nutrition Program provides meals in several area cities, and will continue to do so through the 2009 contract. However, the Upper Minnesota River Valley Regional Development Commission will no longer have a role in the delivery of this and other services for seniors. (Tribune photo by Bill Zimmer)

Upper Minnesota Valley RDC loses role in senior services

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APPLETON -- As of the new year, the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission in Appleton no longer has a role in how services such as congregate dining or senior outreach are provided in the five counties it serves: Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine.

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It has led some to worry that the region's seniors could suffer as decisions and services for them are increasingly made and delivered from afar, especially at a time when budget cuts seem likely.

Until this year, the RDC had been part of the Mankato-based agency known as the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging that oversees many services to seniors in 27 south central counties. It is one of seven such agencies serving the state of Minnesota.

The Upper Minnesota Valley RDC has had differences with the agency over administration and the disbursement of state and federal funding, according to Gary Johnson, a Yellow Medicine County commissioner who serves on the RDC board of directors.

The Upper Minnesota Valley RDC -- one of nine regional development commissions serving the state of Minnesota -- withdrew from the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging last year with expectations of joining a different Agency on Aging to its north.

The Minnesota Board on Aging denied the request to join the Land of the Dancing Sky agency. It expressed its unwillingness to change the boundaries of the Area Agencies of Aging that serve the state, according to Dawn Hegland, newly appointed director of the Upper Minnesota Valley RDC in Appleton.

No longer a part of the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging as of Jan. 1, the Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission is talking about possible litigation and legislative action to resolve its differences.

Seniors in the five counties should not see any changes in services, according to Reggie Edwards, director of the Region Nine RDC and assistant director with the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging. The agency will continue to provide the services in the region; it will just do so without help from the Appleton-based RDC.

Some of the responsibility is being shifted to the Mid-Minnesota RDC in Willmar, which serves the counties of Kandiyohi, Meeker, McLeod, and Renville. Don Winckler, executive director, said he believes the added duties will be manageable.

He said the biggest challenge will come right off the bat: The Mid-Minnesota RDC is in the process of hiring a new senior outreach worker who will be responsible for a nine-county area.

Michelle Bouta had been the senior outreach worker with the Upper Minnesota Valley RDC in Appleton for the last six years. She helped seniors with everything from answering their questions about Medicare Part D to finding home health care.

Bouta expressed concerns about the need to find a replacement familiar with the region and its seniors and providers. The five rural counties and their estimated population of 12,657 seniors are well ahead of the state's "age wave,'' she said.

Bouta has been reassigned to new duties within the Upper Minnesota Valley RDC.

There are also concerns that the Upper Minnesota Valley RDC now lacks input in the decision-making process when government belt tightening and economic difficulties are likely to force cuts to programs.

The senior congregate dining nutrition program is the most visible of the programs for seniors. The nutrition program in the five Upper Minnesota Valley counties is provided through a contract with the Prairie Five Community Action Council. Prairie Five serves 30 communities in the five Upper Minnesota Valley counties and serves 625 to 650 meals a day.

Prairie Five will continue to provide the service in 2009, the last year of the present contract, according to Gail Jerve, nutrition program director. She said all of the nutrition programs in the state have been coping with budget cuts and rising food costs.

The cost has risen to nearly $6 per meal at congregate sites due to ever-higher costs for food, Jerve said. She said the meal program has been issued benchmarks to meet tighter budget needs.

There has been no direction or guidance on how to make cuts, according to Johnson, who also serves on the Prairie Five board of directors. He believes it will eventually become necessary to close some sites, and said that will be very difficult. The sites with the fewest number of participants are in towns without restaurants and not within easy driving distance of other meal sites, he said.

All of the congregate meal programs in the 27 counties served by the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging have been seeing cuts as food costs rise and government budgets tighten, according to Edwards. He said it has been implementing $500,000 worth of cuts to programs over the last three years.

Edwards said he expects continued belt tightening, but he doesn't anticipate any major budget cuts in the year ahead.

Most of the funding comes from the federal Older Americans Act, he explained. Minnesota's state budget crisis should not cause major changes in funding for these programs, he said.

As for now, no one sees an immediate resolution to what appears to be a messy divorce between the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission and Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging.

Johnson said he is hesitant to comment on those differences due to concerns about potential litigation. He said he still hopes to see the Upper Minnesota Valley RDC join the Land of the Dancing Sky agency.

He pointed out that each of the five Upper Minnesota Valley counties had contributed $8,000 to make that transition possible, and had successfully petitioned the Land of the Dancing Sky for membership.

The decision by the Minnesota Board on Aging to deny the transfer was not expected, he said.

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