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Life Support : Council on Aging May Be Done In by Debt, Leaving Unmet Needs


Grace Balzer doesn't like to drive anymore. Gripping a steering wheel hurts her arthritic hands. And driving in traffic makes her nervous.

So when the 71-year-old Oxnard resident has to go to the doctor or just pick up some groceries, she picks up the phone and calls Dial-a-Ride.

A dispatcher manning the 24-hour phone line arranges for a volunteer to pick her up and take her back home at no charge--a service that Balzer and about 1,000 Oxnard and Port Hueneme senior citizens on fixed incomes have come to rely on.

Dial-a-Ride is operated by the Ventura County Council on Aging, which also offers free health care, groceries and activities to low-income senior citizens from its center on Rose Avenue in south Oxnard.

But the nonprofit group is faced with possible closure as a result of recent financial woes. And Balzer and other seniors say the loss would leave a big hole in their lives.

"I couldn't afford a taxicab," said Balzer, whose husband died in 1977. "I'm on Social Security, and that's not much."

The organization declared bankruptcy last month, after being named in a breach-of-contract lawsuit that seeks $300,000 in damages, council President June Schmidt said.

At a Nov. 17 hearing in Federal Bankruptcy Court in Santa Barbara, the group will ask to be forgiven the $300,000 it owes to creditors. If the debts are not wiped out, Schmidt said, the center will have to close its doors.

"It certainly would break our hearts," Schmidt said. "We just don't want to let it go."

The council has served Oxnard-area senior citizens since 1974. But bad business decisions in recent years have put the entire organization in jeopardy, she said.

Schmidt said the group's troubles began in 1992 when a former office manager decided to move the council's Rose Avenue headquarters to Pleasant Valley Road.

With the board's approval, Polly Howell ordered nearly $500,000 in renovations to the new center and signed a 10-year lease to rent the building for $1,800 a month, Schmidt said.

It quickly became apparent that the council could not afford the new site, so the group broke its contract with the landlord and moved back to its old office on Rose, Schmidt said. Rent there is $700 a month, she said.

"The rent at the Pleasant Valley Road site was so astronomical, there was no way we could make enough money to survive," she said.

Elise Rogers, who founded the organization and was a vice president on the board when the move was made, had no comment on past decisions. Howell, the former office manager, was unavailable for comment.

The council's programs are funded by profits from twice-weekly bingo games held at the center, Schmidt said. The group also receives private donations, she said.

Besides Dial-a-Ride, the council offers frequent health clinics where senior citizens have their blood pressure checked and receive free flu shots. It also provides free groceries to about 500 seniors and maintains a fund to aid seniors behind in their rent, she said.

During the week, knots of elderly residents can be found involved in embroidery, bead design and other classes at the center. Some have been meeting at the center weekly for more than a decade to play pinochle or canasta, Schmidt said.

Evelyn Lopez, 77, has been coming to the center two or three times a week since 1979. She likes to make crafts, she said, carefully gluing a lock of curly brown hair on a small doll she was making.

And she likes to visit with about 10 other women who share her avocation. The women plan to write a letter to the court outlining the center's importance in their lives, Lopez said.

"I don't know what we would do if the center closed," she said. "We would have no other place to meet."

Oxnard has a city-run facility, the Wilson Senior Center, which is much smaller than the Council on Aging's facility, Lopez said. Balzer, whose eight children are spread out all over the United States, said she depends on the center for her social life.

"If I didn't have the center, I'd be talking to the walls," she said.

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