Westwego to change how it deals with donations to senior center

City officials are moving forward with a plan to accept and distribute donations for Westwego’s senior center that doesn’t involve moving the funds to a nonprofit group managed by the center’s director.

City resident Warren Deemer told the City Council on Monday night that a nonprofit group already exists that could handle donations for the senior center, but it hasn’t been used for that purpose in several years.

Deemer is the treasurer for The Friends of the Westwego Senior Center organization, which was created in 2011 to serve as the nonprofit fundraising arm for the center after a previous group associated with the Jefferson Council on Aging became defunct. Deemer said the group is ready to step in to help the seniors because they are one of the city’s most important assets.

“Our senior citizens are what this entire community was built on,” Deemer said. He added the group initially held off getting involved at the center because of questions about the amount of autonomy it would be given.

Councilman Melvin Guidry said he supports Deemer’s plan and suggested he submit the nonprofit’s documents to City Accountant James Butler for review.

Guidry even promised to make an initial donation to the group to get the ball rolling.

“Don’t hesitate,” Guidry told Deemer.

The senior center has been the focus of several debates in recent weeks as Westwego tries to renegotiate its cooperative endeavor agreement with the Jefferson Council on Aging for the management of the facility. The Council on Aging turned over management of the center to Westwego in 2008 and provides the city with $40,000 to help run the center and provide meals to seniors.

Westwego spends about $200,000 of its own money on the center, and those funds come from traffic fines in the city.

However, in recent weeks the Council on Aging has expressed some concern for how the center is being run, and it’s unclear whether the agency will continue to provide funding to the city. The council could make an official ruling on the agreement later this month.

Shaddinger stressed that even if the Council on Aging withdraws its funding, Westwego would still be able to operate the center.

Even if the council doesn’t provide Westwego with the full $40,000, it will still pay for meals to be delivered to seniors, and Shaddinger said the city already has been in discussions with parish officials about how to deal with any additional shortfall.

If Westwego breaks away, the city’s seniors will not suffer, Shaddinger said.

“We have several options,” Shaddinger stressed. “We don’t know what they want from us. ... But it’s not the end of the world.”

Deemer’s nonprofit group would give the city a simpler way to handle donations from private agencies. In the past, donations were placed in the city’s general fund, and Senior Center Director Ted Bergeron would use that money to get reimbursed for gifts, tokens and other expenditures on seniors.

Butler, the city accountant, said that practice could violate state laws about using public funds to purchase things of value for private citizens. The city then agreed to transfer money to Louisiana Kids, a nonprofit Bergeron heads, to be used for seniors.

That relationship raised some eyebrows and is being investigated by the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office, which has subpoenaed the nonprofit’s records and questioned Bergeron about the relationship.

Shaddinger has said repeatedly that nothing unethical has occurred at the center, and Westwego Police Chief Dwayne Munch Sr. said he believes there were simply some accounting errors.