The St. James Senior Center is scheduled to close it’s doors following the results of the most recent city council meeting on Monday, September 11.

The council voted not to accept service agreements proposed on behalf of the senior center, as well as service agreements put forth by the St. James Chamber of Commerce and the Firehouse Coffee Shop. Each of these service agreements proposed receiving funds from the city in exchange for the services they offer in order to help offset the cost of utilities.

Prior to a council vote in May of last year, according to St. James City Administrator Harold Selby, the organizations that operate out of city-owned buildings, held lease agreements with the city.  They agreed to pay rent; but utility fees would be absorbed by the city. The council voted last year for the tenants to be responsible for utility payments.

Ramona Rinehart, director of the St. James Caring Center, assumed administration duties of the senior center in December of 2015. She said they received notification of the vote in the summer of last year. This information came to them after they received a grant in April to build a new senior center, having assessed the growing need for it in the community, and had their funds earmarked and locked to match the grant. According to Ramona, after the receiving the grant, the money was unable to be moved for other purposes.

“We received the grant, not knowing they (the city of St. James) were going to start charging utilities,” she explained. Once notified about the utility payment change, Ramona, along with representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and the managers of the Firehouse Coffee Shop attended the next council meeting to say they had not been notified of the vote until after the fact.

“We have no savings now, and we cannot pay $1000 a month in utilities,” said Ramona.

After each of the organizations spoke with the council, it was suggested they draft service agreements so the city could help offset the cost of their utility bills. The three entities arrived at the September 11 meeting with their proposals for the council to vote on as three separate ordinances.

The service agreement for the senior center proposed the building serve as a designated heat and cooling shelter during normal business hours, offering the general public air-conditioned relief and cool water during the hottest part of the day. It was also proposed the center serve as a disaster shelter as needed, as well as a meeting site for other local organizations. The center included its services of providing resources to seniors throughout the week, including providing fresh produce, exercise and education.  

During the meeting, the council was divided and with one member missing, none of the ordinances were passed.

The common argument made by opposing members of the council was that everyone in the city needed to be treated fairly, and they could not offer select organizations special treatment. Council members in favor of the service agreements claimed the three non-profits offered valuable services to the city and should be supported. The majority of the council voted 4-3 in favor of the service agreements, however ordinances require five votes in favor to pass.

Clifton Parker, president of the St. James Chamber of Commerce, said with their proposal rejected, they are faced with, at minimum, double their current expense on their building.

“If the three entities involved were individuals or for-profit businesses, I could understand,” Parker said in an email. “But we are talking about the Chamber of Commerce, Caring Center and Firehouse Coffee Shop—there’s a difference between these three entities and the typical individual or business.”

Harold Selby said the organizations have an opportunity to present new service agreements to the council at an upcoming meeting.

“What I’m hoping is, they bring a new service agreement back and we do it again,” he said.

When asked, Ramona Rinehart said she didn’t know if it would do any good. She added that she may not always agree with some council members’ reasoning, but knows they are trying to be fair.

“I respect those men,” she said.

Ramona recently sent a letter to the City of St. James, explaining that under the burden of the new utility bill, the senior center will be unable to keep it’s doors open, and will vacate the facility on October 31. In the letter, she explains again how the funds they have, are locked into the grant that was awarded prior to the council vote to implement the utility bills and cannot be reallocated.

“As stated in the council meeting, it is impossible for the senior center to pay a utility bill that is averaging nearly $1000 per month,” the letter reads. Ramona also stated in her letter, as well as in an interview, the senior center receives three separate readings on their electricity meter each month, leading to further confusion when paying the bill.

The letter continues to read, “As we can only project the utility fees will continue to climb during the winter months, we are without any other choice but to vacate, based upon your decision.”

The St. James Senior Center began in the early 1970’s as the first senior center in the state of Missouri, according to Ramona. The center initially operated out of a local church before entering into an agreement with the city and moving into their current building.

“It is disheartening to see that our seniors are no longer receiving the support that was once a priority for our city,” Ramona writes.

The Rolla Daily News will be following this story and will provide updates as more developments occur.