Missoula Aging Services seeks mill levy vote as senior population soars
Since its founding in 1982, Missoula Aging Services has evolved to provide a number of services to older adults, helping them navigate everything from aging to dementia, Medicaid and Social Security.
It's also serving more older adults than ever before, though its funding hasn't increased in 15 years. But this June, the organization is hoping to change that, and it will ask voters to repeal the current 2-mill levy and replace it with 4 mills, enabling the organization to meet current and future needs.
Missoula County commissioners will consider placing the mill increase on the June ballot this month for voters to consider.
“It will allow Missoula County voters to make a modest increase in funding to allow Missoula Aging Services to meet the growing demand for services, such as meals on wheels, as our population of older adults and older residents continues to grow,” said Roberta Smith, chair of the governing board for the local organization.
Missoula County established Missoula Aging Services in 1982 and has seen the population of older adults increase exponentially ever since. Smith said the population of senior adults in the county grew 40% between 2010 and 2019, while the population of those aged 74 and older grew by 22%.
It's expected that by 2030, more than 22% of Montana's population will be 60 years and older.
“However, our county funding for the current Missoula Aging Services levy has remained unchanged since 2007, when a flat rate of $350,000 was established with no adjustment for inflation, or for this ongoing population growth,” said Smith. “We have seen the need for our services continue to grow as demand increases, and we've also seen the cost of providing those services go up.”
Susan Kohler, who has served as the organization's executive director for the past 39 years, has witnessed the growth firsthand. The county recognized the demand for services that cater to older adults 40 years ago and established Missoula Aging Services as a nonprofit.
That helped lasso funding resources for older adults, enabling it to be dispersed more acutely to local needs. But with a growing population base and advances in health care that allow people to live longer, current funding isn't enough to keep pace with the growing needs, Kohler said.
“For the first time in history, we're seeing people live longer than they ever have before,” she said. “It's not uncommon for 80s, 90s and now 100s. Sometimes we're serving an older adult and their adult child. We're looking at serving two generations at this point.”
While Missoula Aging Services has kept a low profile within the larger community, the services it provides to older adults has been undeniable. Among its many programs, it aids in assisted living, how to choose a nursing home, programs on dementia, and advice on aging in place.
It also helps older adults navigate complex programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
“People who go to sign up for Medicare are kind of stunned by the complexity of that program and the decisions that are being made,” Kohler said. “We help people navigate through that, but there are costs associated with all of that.”
If the county agrees to place the levy request on the ballot, Missoula Aging Services in June will ask voters to “repeal” the 2 mills approved by voters in 2007 – valued at $350,000 – and “replace” it with 4 mills.
According to the county, the 4 mills would amount to around $16.20 on a home valued at $500,000, or around $1.54 each month.
“We don't rely strictly on Missoula County for funding,” said Kohler. “We do get diversified funding. Some has increased slightly but for the most part it's held steady. The state of Montana is our weakest partner in providing financial support, and we can't do much about that.”