Betsy Baste, left, Nutrition Program Coordinator Jenna Tuttle, County Administrator Roman Gastesi, and Senior Director of Strategic Planning Kimberley Matthews look over the 2017-2018 Monroe County official report. GABRIEL SANCHEZ/ Keys Weekly

On March 28, Monroe County officials were welcomed by senior residents of Plantation Key’s JOY Center to discuss the program’s future and other services for the local elder population.

Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi called the meeting a “great first step” to starting a public-private partnership between the group and the county, and encouraged the group to stay active.

With the program wrapping soon, senior residents had questions.

“We get the sense that you listen,” said head organizer Betsy Baste.

Sponsored by the Upper Keys Life Enrichment Coalition and Keys to Peace, the JOY (Just Older Youth) Center winter program was originally designed to be a dynamic program for active senior residents that offered more than the status quo.

Over the course of its 14-week trial run, the group has welcomed speakers and coordinated routine exercising, technology classes, nutritional and educational seminars, and hosted dozens of other recreational and social activities. There is no physical “center;” the group has been meeting since January at the Pearl House of Worship in North Plantation Key.

Baste said summer programs are the group’s focus while it looks at options for a new home, which has become of critical importance, because now it appears the county’s plans to move the senior center to Tavernier may have stalled.

In April 2017, the board of county commissioners approved plans to spend $480,000 on renovating the former Tavernier School on Georgia Avenue to be the new Upper Keys senior center. Now the estimated cost for the project has grown into the $1.6 million range, said Gastesi.

“I can’t see us spending that money for such a small place,” he added.

That could be good news for seniors wanting a better facility. Complaints surrounding the proposed Tavernier location called into question the site’s condition, lack of parking, and safety. 

Meanwhile, some seniors say the current Plantation Key senior center’s programs and services have also proven inadequate. The senior center’s budgetary focus wasn’t necessarily geared to things like recreation, said Monroe County Nutrition Program Coordinator Jenna Tuttle, but instead to serve meals to senior residents who would otherwise go without. Plantation Key’s senior center is the only Upper Keys congregate meal site for Monroe County’s nutrition program. The center currently serves 30 seniors, said Tuttle.

Each year, roughly $380,000 is allocated to Monroe County for its nutrition program via the Alliance for Aging. The current six-year grant is due to end Dec. 31. County officials are preparing to put out a request for bids in the coming months, but Tuttle said any expansion in services would require additional funding.

“The quality of the meals, things like that, are some things that we can work on with (more funding),” said Tuttle. “We’ve been limited. Our meals have to meet certain dietary requirements through the Department of Elder Affairs that are fairly strict. If we had some other funding we could probably go out to local restaurants or work with a dietician to improve the quality.”

As far as a partnership with the JOY Center, Tuttle said the county may soon start examining funding options to bolster the program. “We need to see if there are other grants available, possible BOCC funding, and any other money saved up by the group,” said Tuttle.

“Regardless of what we go to bid for, and what we are awarded, we’re given a certain pot of money that is allocated to each one of those services. So if we put $100,000 toward recreation, that’s $100,000 less for meals and nutritional education and nutrition counseling.”

Like a handful of others, the senior group of the JOY center has had its eye on making the former Plantation Key Courthouse its new home. With the exact plans for the old courthouse still unclear, the group has hopes it can now be considered as the building’s potential new residents.

Upon the completion of the new Plantation Key School, the project’s builder, Biltmore Construction, will turn its attention to the old courthouse, said Gastesi. The group has invited members of the Board of County Commissioners to its final meeting to continue the dialogue.

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