A state budget cut and a financial foul-up at Niagara County's Office for the Aging forced the County Legislature to dip into its contingency fund last week to continue home care services for 36 homebound senior citizens.
Thomas Chapman, acting director for the Office of the Aging, said the program of respite care is not mandated by the state. The county voluntarily applied for grants to fund it.
The program pays for home care aides from private organizations to go into the homes of seniors suffering from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, blindness or strokes.
The workers give the patients' caregivers, who are usually family members, a break while continuing the patients' care.
Lewis said the county program assists 36 homebound seniors, with a waiting list of 20 more. Another 17 have been placed at DeGraff Memorial Adult Day Care Center, North Tonawanda. The patients' average age is 81.
The workers are supplied by agencies such as the Health Association of Niagara County, Staff Builders, Mercy Home Care and Niagara Home Care.
The cash for the program ran out July 14, and the Legislature voted to spend $61,214 to keep it running. The amount was nearly 17 percent of the emergency unallocated money remaining in the county's coffers for the rest of this year.
The program is supposed to be 100 percent state funded, but the state cut the county's allocation for this year from $98,000 to $57,000, County Manager Gregory D. Lewis said.
The county reduced the level of service for the patients from six hours a week to four hours, but the money ran out anyway. Chapman, who has been acting director since May, said there was a clerical error in the office's accounts.
He said the program started in October 2001, when the first state grant took effect. Since the county's fiscal year begins Jan. 1, the county had to roll over the previous year's state funding to pay for nine months of the ensuing year, after which more state money would arrive.
Chapman said it was assumed that the remaining state funding from last fall would cover all of 2004. Lewis said the error "began when our previous director was there."
That was a reference to Shirley A. Wayda, who retired in May after a Legislature committee resisted her reappointment by Lewis. Wayda said that when she left, she was unaware of any errors in her department's budget.
Legislator Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls, urged Lewis to lobby Albany for restoration of full funding. "It's hard to be a caregiver. It's unfortunate we can't do six hours (of service) a week because our contingency (fund) is so low." Lewis said that would have cost $90,000.
Legislator Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, said he would have preferred that the county fund the program month-to-month, instead of for the whole year. He said he was concerned the county might end up with the program permanently.
"If the state doesn't come through next year, then it's ours," he said.