Funding worries prompt Meals on Wheels freeze in Dubuque

Volunteer for Meals on Wheels Ray Crippes (center), of Kieler, Wis., loads up meals before making deliveries around town Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Dubuque.(Dave Kettering /Telegraph Herald via AP)

Dave Kettering

DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — For more than a year, Kieler, Wisconsin, resident Ray Crippes has spent his weekdays in Dubuque volunteering time to the Meals on Wheels program.

He is among more than a dozen people who depart from St. Matthew Lutheran Church and spend 90 minutes distributing hot meals to residents in need.

"I have seen the people who need this," said Crippes. "I know this could be their only meal of the day."

But with recent cuts in the rearview mirror and more funding reductions in the road ahead, volunteers and program participants alike are feeling the pinch.

Northeast Iowa Area Agency on Aging, the group that oversees Meals on Wheels, recently instituted a hard freeze on accepting any new program participants requesting meals until at least July.

The freeze was in reaction to midyear cuts proposed by the governor's office and the Iowa Senate Appropriations Committee.

In a letter to local lawmakers, agency CEO Donna Harvey argued the de-appropriation proposals could result in more than $330,000 in cuts to the Iowa Department on Aging.

This would result in a $56,000 reduction in funding to the local agency over the next five months, the letter states.

Colleen Lawler, a specialist on aging and nutrition based in Dubuque, told the Telegraph Herald about 170 Dubuque residents were getting food daily through the program about a year ago. That figure now sits at about 130, and could fall even further in the near future.

Iowa Rep. Andy McKean, R-Anamosa, warned that people should not get overly concerned about the proposals coming from the Senate.

"I think the first thing to note is that no final decisions have been made," he said. "I think the Senate proposal was excessive and unwarranted, and I have every expectation that the House caucus will take a much more reasonable approach."

McKean said lawmakers are considering cuts in an effort to balance the budget, which is a requirement under Iowa law. State leaders are attempting to slash more than $30 million from a total budget of about $7.2 billion, he said.

He believes cuts to the Department on Aging will be less than what is on the table.

"The Department on Aging is doing very significant work, and I think their efforts have to be recognized and supported," he said.

Iowa Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque, said she does not support the de-appropriation proposal by the Senate committee, nor does she agree with previous budget cuts that have affected Meals on Wheels.

"What we are talking about here is cutting services to some of our most vulnerable people, and we're talking about whether some residents get something to eat," Finkenauer said. "This is another example on why we need to see more compassion and common sense in government right now."

For those at the Department on Aging, these midyear funding cuts represent the continuation of a worrisome trend.

Greg Zars, chief operating officer for the agency, noted that this is the second straight year the department has faced midyear cuts. Overall funding to the department has dropped by about 15 percent since 2015.

"There's a feeling that we just keep getting squeezed and squeezed a little bit at a time," he said. "But the expectation is to maintain a consistent level of service. At a certain point, you cannot do that anymore."

He noted that last year's budget cuts and the privatization of Medicaid resulted in several austerity measures instituted last year. These included laying off case managers, freezing staff pay and closing field offices.

Volunteers also have been directly impacted.

When Crippes began volunteering, he would normally get to enjoy a hot meal at the end of his shift. That privilege has been taken away.

Crippes and other volunteers also no longer receive reimbursement for the mileage they incur while making deliveries.

Despite these changes, Crippes continues to lend his time to the cause.

"It is necessary to take care of people," he said. "We're not talking about people who are 16 or 20 years. These people are 70 or 80 or 90 years old. What we do is something they need."

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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