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Editorial - Senior Center needs new start, new director

The Alexandria Senior Center is in trouble.

It needs the community's support and a fresh start to continue. Otherwise it will only be a matter of time before it will be forced to close.

Its financial situation, at least for the moment, is bleak. Its 2013 budget projected an operating loss of $48,474. It cashed in a fully matured certificate of deposit for $59,200 but since it takes about $5,000 a month to keep the center running, it will only be a matter of months before the well runs dry.

Here's a closer look at the numbers: The center will take in $60,756 this year, according to the budget. One-third of that money, $20,000 comes from grants. Other main revenue sources include renting rooms at the center ($16,720), fundraising drives ($3,200) and membership dues ($2,236).

That's not enough. Offsetting the income are $17,000 in costs, such as buying coffee and cookies, printing a newsletter, paying AARP for a defensive driving program, and holding birthday parties for members. On top of that, operating expenses total nearly $79,000, which includes paying its director a salary of $34,164. Other big expenses are utilities ($14,000), insurance ($9,200), repair and maintenance of the building ($8,500) and accounting work ($4,000).

Beyond the financials, the center is also facing internal challenges. Morale at the center is low. Board members are divided on how much responsibility for the center's troubles can be attributed to its director, Ann Esterberg.

Last week, a couple of board members asked Esterberg tough questions about her unwillingness to communicate with Nutrition Services Inc., which leases space in the center to prepare and serve meals to seniors. Esterberg attributed the communication breakdown to an incident that happened a couple of years ago when she became fed up with NSI not emptying garbage bins. She wound up pushing a bin full of garbage into an NSI's cook's office and locking the door for the weekend. They haven't spoken since, Esterberg told the board in a matter-of-fact way. She offered no insights into how the incident could have been handled better.

That wouldn't seem to be the kind of leadership the center needs right now. Former board member Art Berg offered a better suggestion: The Senior Center Board should meet with NSI to straighten out conflicts and work together. They should have the same goal: Get more seniors dining at the center.

It's not entirely fair to throw all of the blame for the center's problems on Esterberg. Some of the factors for the slide in membership are out of her control, such as the slumping economy. Esterberg has also earned the full support of board president Joyce Martinson, who pointed out that it's easy to criticize Esterberg without knowing the full extent of her job.

It's clear, however, from Monday's meeting, that several board members, past and present, and a number of dues-paying members feel that Esterberg's management style is not advancing the center or its membership. Several members have resigned from the board in recent months, including Jim Bjerknes, who quit halfway through Monday's meeting because he was so frustrated with the center's direction.

The senior center needs a new beginning. It would be a shame to lose this special gathering spot for the 55-and-older crowd over continued turmoil within the board and its directorship.

Admittedly, it will take a lot to save this "sinking ship" as board member Paul C. Anderson referred to the center. But time and time again, we've seen this community rally together to accomplish what some said were impossible dreams. Building a new YMCA and a new high school are but two examples.

It's time to send out the rallying cry again: for people to support the center with their dollars, for more seniors to become members and for the board to find a new director to steady the ship.

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Echo Press editorials are the position of the newspaper's editorial board, which includes Jody Hanson, publisher; Al Edenloff, editor; and news reporter, Crystal Dey.