“It looks like a dump. Nothing has been done on the outside of the building. … They have no plan. They just muddle day to day with their money. There is no vision by that group.” Rick Franzo, of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany
A perennial sore spot is set to flare again next month when the St. Tammany Parish Council Parish President Pat Brister considers whether to renew an agreement with the parish’s Council on Aging, known as COAST.
At least two council members — Jake Groby of Lacombe and Maureen O’Brien, of Mandeville — have said they plan to ask pointed questions of COAST leaders about the condition of several of the parish’s seven senior centers.
Groby spearheaded a move to delete from the council’s Thursday meeting agenda an item that would have allowed Brister to renew the agreement. The item was postponed until October.
The dispute centers on COAST facilities in Lacombe, Covington and Folsom, which Groby and Rick Franzo, of the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, contend are in poor shape. COAST leadership seems to have no plan to fix the problems, Groby said.
Franzo’s group, which is in Lacombe, complained about the centers to the Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs, which inspects and audits local councils on aging.
“Our organization has deep concerns regarding the operation procedures and practices of COAST and the lack of concern for the environment in which the seniors must endure,” Franzo wrote in a letter to the GOEA.
The subpar condition of the facilities drives down attendance, he added.
Franzo described COAST’s approach as a “Band-Aid,” with no long-term planning.
Franzo and his group raised similar concerns last year. Then, their concerns focused on the interior of the Lacombe building which, he acknowledged on Friday, has since been improved. But the exterior of the building is still in deplorable shape, he said.
“It looks like a dump,” he said. “Nothing has been done on the outside of the building.”
Franzo directed some of his harshest criticism toward Mary Toti, COAST’s executive director, and the organization’s board.
“They have no plan,” he said. “They just muddle day to day with their money. There is no vision by that group.”
COAST, which has an annual budget of $2.5 million, has $800,000 in reserves that could be used to make improvements to the centers, he said.
COAST leases the Lacombe facility from the School Board for $1 per year. That agreement requires COAST to maintain the building.
After receiving Franzo’s complaints, Karen Ryder, deputy assistant director for the Governor’s Office of Elderly Affairs, sent an email to Toti inquiring about the buildings.
Ryder said she plans to send an official from GOEA to check the buildings next week. But, she added that COAST and Toti are fulfilling their obligations to the state.
“(Toti) does what she is supposed to do for us,” she said. COAST “has met the standards” set by the state, she added.
Ryder, who called Toti “very compassionate,” said $800,000 was an appropriate reserve amount for an organization with a $2.5 million budget.
Ryder said that although GOEA contracts with various councils on aging to deliver services, it does not oversee them. That duty falls to the individual boards of each council.
“They need to sit down with this board and get this resolved,” Ryder said of Franzo’s group.
Toti did not return a message left at her office Friday.
One member of COAST’s board, Mandeville Councilman Clay Madden, said he welcomes the opportunity to meet with Groby and O’Brien to discuss the way COAST is being run.
COAST is funded in part by a dedicated 1-mill property tax that it splits with St. Tammany Association of Retarded Citizens. The balance of its funding comes from state and federal sources.