Taos County Senior Center Director Mike Trujillo sits at his desk in the back of the Phil Lovato Senior Center, scratching his head and trying to make cash appear out …
Taos County Senior Center Director Mike Trujillo sits at his desk in the back of the Phil Lovato Senior Center, scratching his head and trying to make cash appear out of thin air.
Just before lunch on weekdays, hundreds of seniors gather at the senior center, at 601 Lovato Place, for lunch, conversation and to meet up with old friends. Each day, over 1,000 meals are prepared for seniors across the county to enjoy on a shoestring budget that keeps getting thinner.
"Our seniors are in need," Trujillo said. "That's why we need to help them."
Trujillo serves over 1,200 seniors in Taos County and is constantly looking for funding to keep the centers open and serving the public. The centers provide dozens of activities for community members over age 60, including dances, exercise, social events and more.
Each week, seniors look forward to the numerous events at the center in Taos, which include tai chi, bingo and daily lunch.
"I enjoy coming here," said volunteer and patron Meladia Martinez. "I have so many friends here. For us it's fun. It's like going to school and making new friends."
Where the money comes from
Funding for the senior program and its activities mostly comes from federal and state sources, according to Trujillo. About $174,000 of the $775,000 budget for the senior program comes from federal funding alone. This money provides for meals, operations of the center and various services needed for the seniors.
In the past, the county gave nearly $54,000 annually to the senior program. For the 2019-20 fiscal year, the senior program will get more than $84,000 from the county.
The majority of the senior center program funds come from the state - nearly $427,000 of which more than half is used to pay for meal deliveries to homebound seniors.
The town of Taos used to give money to the senior center. But according to Trujillo, since 2015 the senior program has received no money from the town. Bellis said the senior center has not submitted any recent funding requests to the town.
The town owned the current senior center building off of Albright Street, but the county was paying to maintain it, according to Trujillo. "It has been a money pit," Trujillo said of the aging Phil Lovato building, which was built over 30 years ago.
In December 2015, the town turned the facility over to the county through a quitclaim deed.
"The county wished to do improvements to the town-owned Ancianos building [as it was called within the community], as they assumed operations within that building but felt they needed to own it to be eligible to receive the required funding and to be able to make that substantial of an investment in a building," said town manager Rick Bellis in an email.
In 2016, the senior program applied for a community development block grant with the town for $30,000, but did not receive it. According to the application, the town gave funds to the senior center in years prior to the 2015-16 fiscal year. In a letter to Trujillo regarding the CDBG funds that year, Bellis said due to "the limited pool of funding the town determined to award only programs that provide for residents in extreme hardship, including food and shelter."
Trujillo said he hopes to apply for more community grant funding through the town of Taos.
Bellis said the town already provides numerous services for county residents including the library, youth and family center and parks.
"As we have often discussed, the town alone for decades was the sole contributor of land, buildings, operational funding, facility and property maintenance, as well as grants management and serving as fiscal agent for a substantial number of our county-wide programs/nonprofits," Bellis said in an email.
The senior program also lost $47,000 in state funding compared to the 2018/2019 fiscal year, according to Trujillo, which caused them to cut two programs as well as a driver position for home-delivered meals.
"It was a hit," Trujillo said of the town and state funding cuts.
On a daily basis, the Phil Lovato Senior Center serves an average of 106 community members. He said a total of 124 individual clients who used the center in 2017 were from Taos.
The Taos County Senior Program has four buildings in the county including Questa, Amalia, Chamisal and Taos. Amalia and Questa are independently funded by federal and state funds as well as county payments but have not received any municipal funding. The center in Questa does operate in a village of Questa building with village workers providing some in-kind services and labor but no direct cash, according to Trujillo.
Some folks around town use the center as a social gathering to see their new friends and catch up with old ones.
"I have a lot of friends who come here," said Larry Gonzales, who was drinking a cup of coffee at the Taos senior center. "I'll go out and about with them."
The Phil Lovato Senior Center also provides drivers for several field trips both around town and out of town for the seniors. According to Gonzales and Jose Leon Trujillo, who makes his way to the tai chi class and dances, the drivers transported the seniors to visit the state fair in Albuquerque in September.
Each year Trujillo said the operation costs increase. In meals alone, the senior program spends over $157,000 per year. This expense goes to providing home-delivered and in-center meals to hundreds of clients both in county and within town of Taos boundaries.
"We need to continue to provide services to seniors," said Taos County Manager Brent Jaramillo. "I don't care if it's town or county - it just needs to get done."
Despite the funding cuts of recent years, the Taos County Senior Program is in no danger of being cut or eliminated, according to Jaramillo.
Trujillo has been working for several years to raise funds and get grants for a new Taos senior center, which is nearing completion less than 500 yards from their current building.
The new senior center will open around January of 2020 and will give more space, an updated kitchen and modern plumbing and electrical systems.
Repurposing an old building
When the senior program moves from the aged Ancianos building, new possibilities are on the rise for the old building. University of New Mexico-Taos has expressed interest in the old building and is hoping to add it to their early childhood development program.
"I'm excited about the conversation," said UNM-Taos CEO Patrick Valdez.
Valdez said the university is looking at expanding their early childhood program into the old senior center building to add to the child care slots available in the community. The new space would expand the services from UNM-Taos Klauer campus and would give those living in town an opportunity to use the child care offered by UNM-Taos.
"We understand a lot of our parents are unable to secure employment because, a lot of the time, they don't have child care," Valdez said.
Valdez said the discussions had not been finalized.
Meanwhile, Trujillo walked around his new senior center on a recent autumn day with high hopes and discussed his plans for the future of the Taos program.
"Over here we'll have divider curtains so we can separate the room," he said of the new common area.
As he goes room to room, his excitement grows about the additional space, opportunities and updated facility his seniors will soon be able to enjoy.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Senior Program spends over $37,000 on food alone per year.
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