JOHN DAY - Local retirees may lose a favorite dining option if organizers decide to limit - or even shut down - the meal program at the Grant County Senior Center due to budget cuts.

The Center's board of directors will meet May 24 to decide what to do next, but chairman Don Caldwell is clearly discouraged.

"We've had a couple of meetings to talk about it, and look at ways to save money," he said. "But without the cooks who can put in the hours each week, we're not going to be able to continue the program the way it is now."

The meal program is one of a slate of programs and departments facing cuts in Grant County's 2007-08 budget.

The Senior Center is a non-profit organization, but the county has been paying for two cooks - one at 20 hours a week, and the other at 19 hours a week - to plan menus, shop for food, and prepare meals. The center serves meals on-site on Mondays and Thursdays, and also prepares hot meals for delivery to residents in the Canyon City, John Day and Mt. Vernon areas, and frozen meals for homebound residents across the county.

"All of these programs will be affected by the budget cut," Caldwell said.

Next year's budget pares about $18,000 from the meal program, leaving about 20 hours split between the two cooks, he said.

That, Caldwell said, is not enough to run a two-day meal program on site, plus the delivery meals. He said it could even spell the end of the meal program, since finding cooks willing to work for 10 or fewer hours a week could be difficult.

The irony of the situation is that many people assume the center's nest egg can be used to make up the loss of county money, he said.

The center has a trust fund, established in 1985 by donations from community members. The fund was envisioned as a way to keep the center operating in perpetuity.

The written goals of the fund are to make the activities of the center self-sufficient, to improve the offerings, and to eventually remove the cost of operations from the county's tax rolls.

Caldwell said the fund was intended to build up to $1 million so that the interest generated by it would run the center.

Meanwhile, "the principal cannot be touched," he said.

The fund has a value of about $737,000 now, but more than $500,000 of that is tied up in bonds which will not mature for 10 years or more. The rest of the fund is in mutual funds, which produce interest for the center's operations.

Currently, about 60 percent of the interest from the fund goes to pay for utilities and other costs at the building. About 40 percent goes back into the trust fund to continue building it up toward the original goal.

The center's monthly income - from the interest, rental of the hall, and donations, but without the county assistance - averaged about $1,612 through December 2006, Caldwell said. The average monthly expenses were about $1,700 for the same period - a tight fit, Caldwell said.

The trust fund remains a source of confusion for the public, and even for seniors, he noted.

"People are wondering why we ask for donations, when we've got this half a million dollars in the trust fund," he said. "The answer is, yes, we've got it, but it can't be touched."

Caldwell worries that paring down the meals program could begin a process of erosion that threatens the existence of the center.

For now, he and the board welcome suggestions or advice to keep the meals program going.

He noted that the meals served in the center meet more than one need for local seniors, he said. The program provides low-cost, hot, nutritious meals to people who might not cook at home. They can bring containers and take home the leftovers, making an additional meal for the next day.

For others, the social time is equally important. Seniors show up as early as 10 a.m. on meal days to chat and have coffee with old friends.

"A lot of them, it's the only outing they have in the whole week," Caldwell said.

The meals are offered by donation - suggested at $3 - for those age 60 and over. Diners under 60 pay from $2 to $4, depending on the age.

Shut-ins in remote areas particularly could feel the loss.

"So far in 2007, about 36 percent of the total meals have been served through home delivery," said Caldwell.

Some of those residents are low-income and live in remote places where there are no stores and few resources.

"It could come down to whether they can find a neighbor who's willing to shop for them," he said.

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