ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Belmont County has been offering a variety of services to its senior citizens for four decades, but this past year for the first time, those services have been provided directly by the county. Last year, county officials announced that they would not be renewing the county’s contract with Belmont Senior Services and that the senior programs would be transferred under the umbrella of the Belmont County Department of Job and Family Services. Formerly known as the Belmont County Committee on Aging, the private agency that later became Belmont Senior Services was under contract with the county to provide various services to seniors throughout the county. The agency had been operating on contract extensions because terms of a new pact with the county could not be reached, and eventually county officials decided to take over operations – primarily because of budgetary reasons. There are three senior services levies currently in place that generate around $3.2 million annually for the programs, which provide everything from regular meals to shut-in elderly residents to transportation to doctors’ appointments. County leaders have always aimed to make sure these funds are being utilized efficiently and for the maximum benefit of the seniors, according to Chuck Probst, president of the board of commissioners, who noted that while a contract renewal was pending with BSS, the county hired a firm to look at the expenses and receipts for the senior services program. Although the firm concluded that the program could be operated efficiently with its current budget, BSS was requesting an increase in funding by around $800,000 for the following year, Probst said. “The way the trend was going, by 2013 we were looking at the need to put on yet another senior services levy,” said Probst. “We didn’t want to do that.” In addition to the budget crunch, there were operating issues that county leaders wanted to correct. “There were waiting lists for people wanting meals and people wanting transportation,” said Probst. “That was unacceptable, too.” After lengthy consideration, county leaders decided to take the bold move of transferring senior services under the umbrella of the county’s Department of Job and Family Services. In doing so, the county was able to retain almost all of the cooks, drivers and other workers that had been employed by Belmont Senior Services while eliminating costs for senior management positions that were no longer needed because of management personnel already in place at the county agency. This translates into a savings of around $300,000 to $400,000 in salaries and benefits as opposed to a need for an additional $800,000 that the previous board and management team had been requesting, officials noted. “We’re able to put that money back toward costs for providing services for seniors,” said Probst. In fact, the county has been able to address a variety of issues since services were transferred to the Department of Job and Family Services last November. “We’ve eliminated all waiting lists and have added more than 50 home health clients,” said Dwayne Pielech, director of the BCDJFS. Initially, the county had contracted out the meal service program, but concerns over quality and efficiency prompted officials to bring food preparation back under the agency’s watch. Meals are now being prepared daily by cooks within the agency and delivered to seniors throughout the county. “We now directly manage decisions about what’s being done,” said Pielech. Senior Services of Belmont County – by which the operation is now known – is now looking to provide improved services to all seniors in the county who need them. The agency also works in conjunction with the 10 senior centers located throughout Belmont County, and through the efforts of center coordinators, is planning numerous activities - including events that are being co-sponsored by the different senior centers. Other improvements are also being pursued, including ways to bring in additional funding and maximizing the funds that are available for seniors. The county is seeking state and federal funds that may be able to help support the senior programs and is looking at a possible $100,000 in additional savings through reimbursement of transportation costs for Medicaid clients. County leaders have said they hope to demonstrate great success with the senior services program as a county agency and be able to use it as pilot program for other counties in the state of Ohio. Ayres can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.