Serving the recreation, education, social and nutritional needs for a membership of at least 1,800 people, the Billings Community and Senior Center at 390 N. 23rd St. is often a busy place.
The center shares space with — and is owned and operated by — the City of Billings, which has its Parks, Recreation and Public Lands Department offices in the building.
Billings Senior Citizens Inc., the longtime advocate and fundraising arm for people 55 and older who use the center, has a list of problems the group says it is experiencing with the department and with the city’s senior management.
Until now the group’s executive committee has hesitated to air its grievances, said spokesman Joe Fedin, the city’s former recreation superintendent. He said the group has been trying “to get along and get them to recognize us as an advocate, not an adversary. But from the start, there have been control issues, and we don’t see why, since (the city) owns it and staffs it and can change anything going on there.”
Acting City Administrator Bruce McCandless said the dispute is with the nonprofit group, “not with the average user who participates in our programs. We’re not treating this nonprofit any differently than we would treat another nonprofit. We want their participation.”
In June, the group turned down a city-proposed use agreement, in part because the group disagreed with a requirement that it carry at least $1.5 million in liability insurance.
“It was a pretty one-sided agreement,” said Willeen Erpenbach, a Billings Senior Citizens board member.
Last month, the group gave the city a five-item to-do list. Some progress has been made, group members said, but other demands have not been acted upon.
Some items on the list include:
- Updating and maintaining a database of group members with information that can help first responders in an emergency.
- Allowing the group’s treasurer into the center without an appointment to pick up money belonging to the group and make bank deposits.
- Removing a sign that spells out rules for behavior. Those rules banned unreasonable, intentional noise; speaking on a cellphone “above a normal speaking voice”; and “spreading misinformation about other users, volunteers, staff or Center programs.”
Group members said they walked out of a meeting last week with city staff. “Until their attitude changes, nothing is going to change,” Fedin said.
In the 18 months since she retired as the center’s longtime director, Robin Grinsteiner said the relationship between the two parties “has gone up in smoke. For four decades, had it not been for these volunteers and the senior board, we wouldn’t have a program.”
Grinsteiner said the board does not object to recent parks and recreation efforts to offer new programs to young, active seniors. One example: Coffee Conversations, an exercise and education program offered weekly last summer to match seniors with people with expertise, including pharmacists, historians and nutritionists, while taking a long walk together.
“We want to court the younger senior programs,” Grinsteiner said. “The question is, what do you do with people who enjoy senior lunches and big themed parties, people who play cards and bingo?”
The group also says that city staff has limited the number of days it can hold its twice-per-year garage sale. The city offered other facilities for the sale, which Billings Senior Citizens turned down.
The group says the city now also requires a city employee be present to “chaperone” senior dances held at the center. A chaperone at one summertime dance was a 17-year-old lifeguard.
The group also claims that the city has reduced the number of rooms at the center available to Billings Senior Citizens.
Part of the problem, Parks and Recreation Director Michael Whitaker said, is that “nothing was ever written down with who’s responsible for what. They thought they owned the building, but it’s a city building. And they thought Triniti worked for them.”
Triniti is Triniti Halverson, the parks department’s senior services specialist.
Thomson said department facilities, including the Community and Senior Center, North Park Center and Zimmerman Center, have been at capacity during the summer months, the height of department's recreational programming.
“We have never displaced a senior-related activity with a youth program,” Whitaker said. “Their concern is that we were not communicating. For the past three or four months we have been meeting with their executive committee to discuss any senior-related topic they want to discuss to keep them informed. We finally discontinued that because our information was not getting to the full board.”
This week the board sent members of Billings Senior Citizens a six-page letter. The letter culminates with the news that the board is, for the time being, withholding financial support for construction of a parking lot near the center to reduce the walk for people attending center events.
The group said it has worked 14 years to raise more than $300,000 for the project.
“We had hoped,” Fedin said, “we could get things turned around.”