Wesley Homes selected by Des Moines City Council to run Senior Center

By Jack Mayne

The Des Moines City Council at study session Thursday (June 7) approved a two year pilot program to replace the retiring head of Senior Services with a contract with management by Wesley Homes, a private company that has been long involved in business in the city.

City Manager Michael Mathias said the longtime manager, Sue Padden, has decided to retire after 22 years. and her retirement puts the city “in a difficult position of finding a suitable replacement of finding a suitable replacement, which in actuality is very difficult.”

That gives the city “an opportunity to take a fresh look at the manner in which the city provides and manages services to senior …,” a Council packet briefing paper said.

Agreement for two years
“Unless earlier terminated” the agreement “shall be for two years” and with agreement of both the city and Wesley and it can be extended for an additional two year if both sides agree. The agreement can also be terminated “in whole or in part, at any time, by either party without cause upon 90 days written notice …”

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story said there was a six month trial period. That was a comment by participants at the Council meeting and not part of the official contract agreement. We regret the error.

Matthias said the city will largely base its initial review of the Wesley program on talking with people using the Senior Center. The city manager said that Wesley “is accountable to us and there is no part of the agreement that yields city control of the process.

He said the city turned to Wesley Homes and Judson Park to discuss “ways to partner as part of a pilot project” to allow the evaluation of a potential “public-private partnership at the city’s Senior Activity Center.”

Matthias’ memo to the Council noted that Wesley is “currently in the process of redeveloping their campus” with a $175 million remodeling and upgrade of Judson Park which “when completed it will be their flagship facility within the region.” He also noted that Wesley has “contributed to and participated in several city capital improvement projects” including donating the property on which the City Hall is located.

The city did not attempt to find an individual to take over as manager of the Senior Center because of Wesley’s availability.

‘Falsehoods create disruption’
At the Thursday night Council study session, Matthias said there has been many allegations over the potential agreement with and “setting the record straight” he said the senior center would not be moved, nor will the building housing he center be torn down, as rumors have suggested.

The city manager told Council that no changes to programs or services at the center, that “the same quality services and , but “opportunities for enhanced services may be identified.”

“The city has no plan other than complete commitment to the senior center,” Matthias said. “Anything else is a distraction. Falsehoods create disruption, they create tension, they create uncertainty. I bet they raise blood pressure because I know that has happened for me. Those are not caring qualities of being concerned about the well being of our senior population.”

“We are excited about the Senior Center,” he said, and “we have put resources into it. In the very near future to have more resources dedicated to social service referral,” he said, adding they the city has have grant applications with King County government to “provide infrastructure improvements” to the center.

The city also said the change won’t increase the current budget. “The contract with Wesley is anticipated to break even with city’s current expenditures for the senior services manager.”

The city manager said that a recent disruption to Catholic Services providing lunches at the Senior Center meant “you all ate a lot of pizza and that will never happen with Wesley. They have kitchen, they have resources, continuity of services” at Wesley.

“Those are the truthful conditions of this agreement,” he said.

Review pilot contract
Mathias said he was “excited about the future” with the Wesley contract.

“We will have community engagement and stakeholder engagement as we review this going forward to evaluate its success and to evaluate what people’s feelings about the services they are receiving, the manner in which they are receiving them,” he said, and made adjustments as needed.

Kevin Anderson, CEO of Wesley Homes (pictured, right), told the Council study session that his company is investing $175 million to upgrade their Des Moines facilities and they are “long term stakeholders, we’ve probably been her as long as most people that are in this room. Our role is not only to run Wesley Homes but be a part of the community.” Wesley Homes will soon have its 75th anniversary in Des Moines (1943) longer than the city has been a city (1959).

“It’s a challenge to find good people who understand the industry as far as senior services or anything so it is very difficult to find employees and it is difficult to find resources so when we are able to partner with the city or Judson Park or with staffers, we do those things,” Anderson said. “Why? Because it makes good sense because we think that it enhances the services that we can deliver to seniors in our community.”

“We’re excited about the future,” he said.

Council comments
Councilmember Luisa Bangs people should “give an opportunity for this to succeed because if there isn’t that, what’s the alternative and the alternative really doesn’t look good.” She added the Wesley Homes proposal should be given a chance to succeed. She added that Senior Center Manager Sue Padden and Parks and Recreation Director Patrice Thorell have been unhappy about the proposed change but they have “their program’s best interests at heart. But you know what? Their program is the city’s program and we are the city.”

Councilmember Traci Buxton said she received some unpleasant and even threatening letters but also some respectful and thoughtful letters from community residents. She wondered if a quality manager for the Senior Center could be found that the wages paid. She added that this test pilot program offers long term public and stakeholder input and that there are ways to get out of the contract “if it turns out terrible.”

Councilmember Matt Mahoney said he was “personally attacked that I don’t like seniors … it hurt and I’ve been there and I understand,” noting he spent the last three months with his father “until he took his last breath. It is very important to me how the seniors end their quality of life.” Retiring Sue Padden was in charge of the Senior Center for 22 years and that means there are many new and updated things to look at, decide on and perhaps accept. He said regardless of any questions about the process of selecting Wesley Homes, “I am going to support this program.”

‘Incredible foundation’
Deputy Mayor Vic Pennington said taking over the longtime roles of Senior Center Manager Padden and Parks and Recreation Director Thorell have built “an incredible foundation. I hate to see this community so divided.”

Pennington added that “it casts a pretty heavy shadow to have the level of misinformation that has been out this last week and I would ask of everybody, everybody have an open mind. We have a contract that keeps the program going and that’s real, true measure of whether the program was good to begin with.” He added the 90 day pilot program has built-in guarantee.

“I am going to support this and I am going to monitor it like all of us are,” he said.

Mayor Matt Pina read a statement on the issue from excused absent Councilmember Jeremy Nutting. “I am convinced that this is the best way to serve our seniors,” said Nutting. “There is great value in this approach. I want to assure the public that the programs and services you are currently receiving today will continue.”

‘Many mistruths’
Pina, in his own statement said, “It is frustrating to me how many mistruths were put out into the public and how many people grabbed on to that.” He said he got only one phone call but many e-mails and many were discourteous adding “we value our seniors” even though some of the comments stressed the opposite. Many of the things on the rumor mill on this issue, and others, are “so far from true, (but) people still believe.

The half truths hurt members of the Council, but they asked for that when they ran for office.

“But the half truths also hurt the senior population because it puts fear in people,” Pina said. “And, to me, that’s horrible.”

Part of the comments damaged the reputation of Wesley Homes and is bad because the company has a “wealth of resources that can make what we have better.

“I support this, I support Wesley and I support this Council,” Pina said.

Councilmember Rob Back said Wesley role is to “serve seniors” and that he could not find a better way to continue senior services. “Change is never easy, I don’t like change … but changes happen.”

Citizen comments
Resident Bonnie Reister said she was concerned at the way the city made its decision to use Wesley and the lack of transparency. She wondered what benefits the mayor and city manager may get from the selection, and whether the services to the seniors could be changed at will.

Resident Scott Eliason, who said he volunteers and works often at the Senior Center, and “I found out about this three days ago, and I find that appalling. How did that happen when this is a transparent process?”

Former Des Moines Council candidate Harry Steinmetz said there was not enough time for the community to make an appropriate decision. “I have not seen anything that says this is going to lead to something for the city,” but will for Wesley Homes. He added it should be held so the public can better understand the proposal.


5 Responses to “Wesley Homes selected by Des Moines City Council to run Senior Center”
  1. Harry S. Steinmetz says:

    Just wanted to correct a couple of points.

    First, The term of the contract is 2 years. Any attempt to represent this as less really misrepresents the contract. There are various termination clauses, including a 90 day notice that may have confused members of the council. But it a 2 year “pilot” program for Westly to mange the senior center.

    Second, there are no metics or standards in the contract by which to measure the success or failure of the pilot project. So what exactly are we “piloting”?

    Third, when I stated that it is not clear to me what the City gets out of the contract or what Westly gets out of the contract, it means the benefit to both parties is not clear. Westly’s only concrete obligation is to hire a Senior Services Manager, which the City would have to do without the contract. So it just shifts the hiring burden to Westly, but they will be hiring from the same job pool that the city would be hiring from.

    Lastly, this last minute approach is exactly what the City has done a number of times in the past and its no wonder people get angry and misinformation gets out there. Change is difficult for everyone and people need time to adjust to it. The planning for Sue’s retirement should have started 6 months ago. It could have been fully discussed with the stakeholders and a solid plan could have been developed. That would have displayed a lot of leadership. Instead the City opted for a short term fix and relatively no notice to the stakeholders. Their approach seems to be “if it doesn’t work out, we can roll it back”. That’s a tough way to run a government.

    Additionally, I want to be clear that I think Westly is a great institution. I’ve known Mr. Anderson for 15 plus years and used to represent Westly and the other non-profit long term care providers in the legislature. Westly is a great example of how to run a high quality facility. I have no doubt that if seniors in Des Moines need services, Westly will step up.

  2. JC Harris says:

    I agree with this.

    The real issue to me is the -culture- of poor communication by the City Council which has existed as long as I’ve lived here. It’s not one person, it’s a -culture- that fosters mistrust within the community.

    The Council and City Manager act often with only the legal minimum of public input which often makes the public feel blindsided and not a part of their own city.

    What is most infuriating (as happened yet again on Thursday) is that when residents respond with real anger, the Council acts with defensiveness rather than hearing what the public is trying to say: DON’T MAKE SENSITIVE DECISIONS WITHOUT DOING A -LOT- OF TALKING TO US -FIRST-.

    And the Council simply will not hear this message. Their response is -always- with anger in kind or surprise or even hurt feelings. And then there is the tendency to talk down to people as when the Mayor made a speech comparing the running of the city to that of a ‘corporation’–which he actually thought was a good lecture to give angry residents.

    These responses are not only silly they are inefficient and they send the worst kind of message to the public. These types of responses pour salt into an open wound, which in turn keeps the cycle of public disaffection chugging along year afte year. Our level of public engagement is -terrible- and the fact that the Council doesn’t seem to care about this is a real worry.

    Any resident could have told a Council Member ahead of time what the reaction would be so -why- create a problem with the public when you don’t -have- to?

    Yes, our government technically does not require public input on lots of decisions. But the legal minimum does NOT make for good relations with the public. Who wants ‘the minimum’ in their small town? The Council’s approach willfully alienates residents; it says “Please leave this to us.” Ouch. Nobody likes that kind of patronising attitude.

    Personally, I would prefer that the Council pre-sell all sensitive items with public meetings BEFORE any decisions are really made. Even if this slows the process of implementation on some important projects, I think that rebuilding the trust of the public is -far- more important than any ‘efficiencies’ to be gained with the current approach.

    Now… as to the whole Wesley scheme? I am skeptical of that for the very reason that Council Member Pennington used to support it (using some twisted logic which I did not understand): No one is irreplaceable. To my mind, the fact that Sue has done such a stellar job and has built a program that so many people like speaks to the notion that we should find someone to carry on. -That- to my mind is the way to honour her legacy of service. If the city had put in some real effort on this, I am -sure- they could find someone who could continue building and create an even -better- set of programs.

    Senior Services is a sensitive area in a town like ours… not quite, but almost as important, to my mind as Chief Of Police. It’s a -human- job. Maybe you could ‘outsource’ some subordinate services to a great company like Wesley, but the person at the top? I think most people want that to be a DM City person–someone who is out there every day interacting with the public and is, above all, accountable first and foremost to residents.

    Again, even if that isn’t -the- most efficient way to go, that good PR of having a DM City person running things should -matter- more than wringing out the last dollar of cost savings.

    Des Moines is a small town. We should govern it like a small town. Not like a corporation.

  3. Margie says:

    This reminds me of the drug rehab center located next to an elementary school. Why can’t the city government of Des Moines be transparent to its citizens? I may not even be against this change for the senior center. But the way it is presented makes me feel uneasy. Anybody else???

  4. Patrick Nardo says:

    The Wesley support and continuation of senior services, is one that must be continued, for the sake of the growing numbers of senior, myself included. With Patrice Thorell, and Sue Padden retiring, there exists a void, that Wesley can fill without notable loss of quality or services provided. Watching our city council meeting, was an impressive experience, as they all reviewed the events of retirement/replacement, and mutually agreed that no suitable replacement for these two community stalwarts., there was a great choice offered. Wesley brings enhanced experience with senior living requirements, and they have a huge organization that can be expected to, even possibly enhance the operation of our senior activity center.
    It was extremely rewarding, to me, to see our city council performing in the best, most public way with emphasis on transparency. We are inundated with ungrateful, uninformed residents, in a minority, thank God, who will take every opportunity to find fault with any council actions.
    We are now endowed with one of the best city managers and a cadre of council men and women that is in the process recovering Des Moines from previous poor leadership. Free speech is fine and disagreements too, but why not ask, seek and educate ourselves in what is pure rumor and reality?
    This much I do know; if there is a question of what our council is doing, why they are doing it and under what regulatory guidance, I can ask and get a satisfactory response. For now, though, I am happy with knowing that, whatever we can find wrong with our little city of Des Moines, our leadership is taking it into account, and making the best amends, humanly possible. In closing, I am reminded of the ones who did run and lost recently, an know we are far better off with those now sitting.

  5. BirchCreek says:

    I agree Patrick. Seems some people will always have something negative to say.
    I think Wesley will do a fine job, likely better than the nay-sayers.

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