After three months on the job as the Area Agency on Aging director, Marvin Pohl says he believes his work in strengthening community partnerships is already starting to pay off.
He came to the agency after criticism by Meals on Wheels and some members of the Senior Advisory Council had prompted Wasco County to request a review by the state to see if the Mid-Columbia Council of Governments was the right organization to administrate the Area Agency on Aging.
Since the review came back, Pohl has been meeting with groups that the state report said had a damaged relationship with the agency.
“I’m changing how the AAA is involved in the community by spending time with the people who do similar work,” he said. “It seems to have relieved some of the pressure.”
He has started having monthly meetings with directors of the meal sites to try to head off problems when they first come up. He has also been attending the Network on Aging meetings and has formed a partnership with the Aging People with Disabilities office.
The strengthened partnerships and increased communication will be especially important, Pohl said, in the coming months and years of government budget cuts. The sequester cuts that went into place March 1 include an $11,000 cut to the senior nutrition programs the AAA administers.
“We have to immediately revise their contracts,” Pohl said.
Denise Patton, director of Meals on Wheels in The Dalles, said it has been too brief a time since the state review came back and Pohl has been at the helm to definitively say whether things will be better than they were before. But she said, if nothing else, Pohl is “a likeable guy.”
“Honestly I think if anyone can repair the AAA, Marvin is probably our guy. What little contact I’ve had with him has been positive … He has a huge job ahead of him. I hope and pray it goes well,” Patton said.
Pohl said the agency is taking to heart the part of the state’s report that says they must do more to pursue funding from alternate sources, because government funding isn’t going to be enough anymore.
“I think every organization that receives public funding should be prepared for that,” he said.
Personally, he said he is glad that the state review was initiated because it gave him, a newcomer to the community, a starting point to understand the current state of affairs, the state’s view of how things should be run and what the community hoped to see changed.
He said the state review didn’t find mismanagement of funds or other similar wrongdoing on Mid-Columbia Council of Government’s part, but one theme was that the council of governments could have done better to listen and address problems at their inception instead of hoping they would go away.
“We need to develop strategies to work with each other that are not based on personalities,” he said. “I tell people I’m not here to protect anyone but the people we serve. If MCCOG is doing something wrong I’ll be the first to point it out.”
On the other hand, he said many things people were angry with MCCOG about were mandates from state and federal government that it could do nothing about. The requirements for funding, for example, are very restrictive about where certain dollars can be spent.
“Nonprofits don’t understand,” he said. “People say ‘I saw the budget and you have the money to do this’ but we don’t.”
One funding restriction that has caused problems for the Area Agency on Aging has been that only a very small portion of the money coming in from the government can be spent on administration hours. As a result, previous AAA directors have spent most of their time delivering direct services instead of doing outreach, grant writing, resource development and other administrative functions — something the state criticized in its review.
Pohl said they are looking at grants, fundraising and other options to allow him to spend more time on administrative functions, but in the interim the Mid-Columbia Council of Governments board voted to give the Area Agency on Aging a five-year loan from its general fund.
“This should give me the time allowed to develop the resources needed,” he said.
Currently Pohl’s biggest administrative project is revising the Area Agency on Aging’s five-year plan.
“We’re doing a three-county event to try to get younger retirees to volunteer but also to find out how they want to use the system they are going to grow old in,” he said. “I’m not only focusing on the people I’m currently serving but also looking ahead 10 years.
One of his dreams is to work with Portland State University to do an in-depth study of the needs of older rural Oregonians and eventually create a “rural research institute” that would study the needs of young and old in frontier counties.
After moving from Portland, Pohl said decision-makers in the metro area have a “very skewed view of rural life” and as a result policy decisions are made for the entire state that don’t always work so well for rural counties. It would be better for rural areas if they could present findings to the state backing up what they say they need.
“If I can leave knowing I left the seeds for that it would be something I would be real proud of,” he said.