A decision to include an optional $72K kitchen as part of the planned $1.5M Active Living Center may test the Clarke County Board of Supervisors commitment to budgetary frugality when it comes to duplicating County facilities.
A new kitchen facility being considered for the Active Living Center, a joint project between Clarke County taxpayers and the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging, if approved, would be the County’s fourth taxpayer-funded kitchen within a quarter of a mile of the planned senior citizen facility.
Clarke County’s budget continuing to be squeezed by decreased contributions from the Commonwealth of Virginia as well as the stagnant national economy, Clarke County’s Supervisors have actively guarded against all but the most necessary spending measures in order to maintain a fiscal cushion against what several supervisors have predicted as difficult financial times ahead.
Supervisor Barbara Byrd (Berryville) has been the Supervisor’s most outspoken advocate for the kitchen arguing not only that the new facility would be a positive amenity for seniors but that it would also serve a wider purpose within the community.
“The seniors would only be using the kitchen during specific hours” said Byrd. “The facility would be available for County use during evenings and weekends and could be rented out or used for other activities like catering or family gatherings.”
“I’m in favor of the including the kitchen space in the building. We need to do more to get the younger seniors involved more in the community” Byrd said. “Activities like dancing, mature exercise classes and cooking classes require the proper facilities. I think that we need to be doing a lot more for our seniors.”
But as the Clarke County Board of Supervisors prepares to meet on December 12 to decide whether to spend $72K on another county kitchen, fiscally conservative Supervisors David Weiss (Buckmarsh) and Pete Dunning (White Post) have expressed some reservations over the need for the facility.
“We need to have a conversation to discuss how it might work. My original premise was I didn’t have a problem with the kitchen if it was going to be used” said Weiss.
Supervisor Pete Dunning (White Post) was more blunt in expressing his concerns.
“I think that it’s a stretch to think that you could make money with a catering operation” Dunning said.
One alternative that might save taxpayer is a shared facility agreement with the Clarke County Public Schools to address the Active Living Center’s requirements. Over the past year, as the new Clarke County High School has been under construction, the School Board has had discussions about using school kitchen facilities for cooking classes and for possibly taking on the requirement for daily meals delivered to stay-at-home seniors by Meals on Wheels.
Clarke County’s Meals on Wheels program is currently prepared in a local church that hosts Clarke County’s existing senior center.
Could the Clarke County Public School division satisfy a portion of the requirements envisioned for the new Active Living Center kitchen facility? Both Dr. Murphy and Sodexo manager George Higley think that the answer is “yes”. But although the School Board has considered options for using its various kitchen facilities more widely, the idea apparently was never formally presented to the Clarke County Board of Supervisors.
“There will be three full service kitchens – current CCHS, Cooley and the new CCHS” said Clarke County Public School Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy. “To the best of my knowledge, no discussions have taken place with Sodexo or CCPS regarding this opportunity. However, Sodexo, working in partnership with CCHS, could provide kitchen facilities.”
“The new high school kitchen is very large, and we have had some discussions about offering a culinary arts class for students there, but we need to find a ‘staff member’ that would be willing to develop such a program, get VDOE approval, etc.” Murphy added. “The new high school will also have cooking facilities to help students with special needs learn to be sufficient, but those will be program facilities and would not be suitable for an outside cooking class or the like – more like a home kitchen.”
“From a community use perspective, we could certainly offer a variety of cooking classes, but our facilities are commercial in nature” Murphy added. “Cooley and CCHS would be considered ‘small’ by today’s standard for a school, but any of the kitchens could accommodate a cooking class.”
Sodexo, the school division’s food service contractor, says that it would be pleased to take-over preparation of the County’s Meals-on-Wheels meals if asked.
“In the larger scheme of things, 30 meals a day is a relatively minor task for us” said George Higley, Sodexo’s Clarke County operations manager. “We can handle diet restrictions and other specialty requirements if necessary. We can make it work if the County wants to move in that direction.”
“If you look at Sodexo’s business as a whole, we already handle many senior citizen requirements” Highley said. “It’s really part of our niche. But if there’s anything that we can do for the kids or the County then we’re willing to look at it”.
Another consideration in building an Active Living Center kitchen is the ongoing operational and maintenance expenses associated with the capital expenditure for the facility. In the past, the Supervisors have been very cautious of “one-time” expenditures that have ongoing budget implications.
“Not only are commercial kitchens costly, but they are valuable to the organization that “owns” them” Murphy pointed out. “Of course, other factors come into play as well, such as long-term maintenance, upgrades, and staffing. The real question is use – how will the facility be used, and its need – full service vs. warming or prep. These are choices that only the organization can make.”
Asked how would he view the $72K kitchen expenditure given the recent budget cuts that the school division has have endured, Dr. Murphy replied ”In the end, every choice we make revolves around what we value as a community and /or as an organization and our ability to pay. It would be my hope that our community would value their schools as much as the services we provide for our seniors, our law enforcement and fire personnel, and social services. We are all in this together, and by working together we can find solutions to the challenges and issues that are important to us. First, we must ask the hard questions, and then either make the sacrifice or find the support for the same. Our schools are running on the margins. We will soon be faced with questions of value – academics versus sports, for instance. The “fluff” is gone, as is the low hanging fruit. It would be my hope that the decision makers for the senior center make the best choices they can, given what they have to work with, for the long run, in preparation for the future.”
Supervisor Weiss said prior to Monday’s meeting that he has an open mind about the kitchen facility decision and hasn’t ruled out either a new kitchen or a collaborative agreement with the school division.
“I wasn’t aware that using the school kitchen was even an option as an alternative at the time of our last meeting. The idea may be viable and I think that we should at least look at it.” Weiss said. “In terms of the Parks department offering catering services, they’re not set up to do that at the moment but it’s possible that they could if they had the facilities I guess. I don’t think that we know a lot about the catering world though, so it would be hard to make money at it. We have to look at it carefully I think” said Weiss. “There’s also the question of whether a government facility should be competing with private catering businesses. However, SAAA is a private organization so if they were doing it that wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
Given that Clarke County taxpayers have lately heard a lot about saving money and deferring costs, some citizens may question the need for a new kitchen facility rather than spending scarce resources on other community requirements.
The question is not lost on Dr. Murphy.
“It would appear that the schools operate under a different filter when it comes to the expenditure of funds” Murphy said. “I continue to hear that times are challenging, so any measure that lends itself to fiscal prudence would appear to be appropriate.”
”We need to have the right information in front of us before we make a decision next week” Byrd said.