A local group has a new request of the Bend parks and recreation district. It’s not a new dog park. Not a disc golf course. Not a new stretch of trail. It’s a million dollars. Cash, please.
The United Senior Citizens of Bend made this unusual request of the district last week and it’s not one the district can easily put off. The group of senior citizens, which boasts between 400 and 500 members, says the district and the city of Bend swindled them out of $925,000 to build the Bend Senior Center on Reed Market Road, marginalized their programs and left them nothing to show for a 10-year partnership.
“We had an identity,” said the group’s longtime president, Virginia Reddick. “We lost that identity—we literally disappeared into nothing.”
If the district does not respond to the group’s demand for the $925,000 quickly, the attorney for USCB said the group will file a complaint in Deschutes County Circuit Court for the money, claiming that a legal partnership between the two organizations dissolved and USCB should get its money back.
That attorney, Bill Buchanan of Karnopp Peterson, has the distinction of winning one of the largest money awards ever paid out by the city of Bend for his client Jan Ward, whose water company, Juniper Utility Co., was condemned and taken by the city in 2002 after hundreds of complaints about service. Buchanan has also made a name for himself birddogging other city issues, such as the city’s $70 million surface water improvement project.
The money demand and the very real threat of a lawsuit has stunned parks and recreation officials, they said.
“It’s kind of out of left field,” said Scott Wallace, a BPRD board of directors member. “My initial response is ‘Are you kidding me?’ But we’ll obviously take it seriously.”
The demand may seem out of left field, but the timing is conspicuous.
The parks district has a $29 million bond on the November ballot and is currently in the midst of convincing voters in a down economy to increase taxes on the district’s behalf.
Buchanan said USCB leaders have been trying to communicate with BPRD Director Don Horton about this issue since last September, long before the district planned to go out for the bond measure.
Even still, the timing could not be worse for parks and rec.
“If it comes out that we are mean to seniors, of course it will affect the bond—but we’re not,” said Horton. “I think what [USCB did] for seniors in this community is something they should be proud of.”
USCB members are proud, they said—of surviving some tough years. But it’s time for them to again provide the kinds of services they say vulnerable seniors in Central Oregon need. The money, they said, will likely go toward expanding the Bend Community Center to accommodate that work, which USCB said it was unable to do well at the Bend Senior Center.
“We hung in there as long as we could,” said Reddick. “But we want to serve the seniors.”
USCB “LOST IT ALL”
For the members of the United Senior Citizens of Bend, this is a story about losing everything and, after a decade of anger and frustration, demanding it back.
Though the group was founded in the ‘70s, this particular chapter of USCB’s history begins in the mid-‘90s. Back then, USCB was going strong at a building it owned outright on 5th Street, just off Greenwood Avenue where the current Bend Community Center is now located.
The group boasted hundreds of members, many of whom visited weekly for a meal, to play cards with friends or to connect with service organizations, like Central Oregon Council on Aging, which operated out of that senior center.
“It was warm. It was fun,” said Reddick, who became the president of USCB in 1999.
The building hummed daily with activity, but it was old—a former church built in 1935—and the seniors had outgrown the space.
So, the leadership of USCB began to dream of a new senior center where they could meet the service and social needs of the growing senior population in Bend. They got buy-in from the city, from other senior groups like AARP, and eventually the Bend Parks and Recreation District, which in 1997 pledged to contribute two acres of land on Reed Market Road to the project.
Most importantly they began to raise money.
Ultimately, through the sale of their building on 5th Street, the draining of their savings, and a massive fundraising effort, USCB leaders claim they contributed about $925,000 to what would become the Bend Senior Center.
And now they want it back.
They want it back because they believe they were deceived by the city of Bend in 1999 when the Bend Senior Center building was deeded to the parks district, an organization they said is more interested in providing tai chi for 55-year-olds than it is providing foot care clinics, health screenings and a place for low-income and elderly seniors.
“We didn’t fit their mission and they really didn’t want us,” said Reddick.
An original Oregon Community Development Block Grant application that netted $600,000 for the new senior center, shows that original plans for the center were much more in line with USCB’s vision. This grant application does not put an emphasis on physical recreational activities and is instead heavily weighted toward providing assistance to low-income seniors.
“Without our knowledge, the plans were changed,” said Reddick. “We couldn't find out what happened. They were hiding stuff from us.”
What the senior center became, according to USCB leaders, was a pay-to-play operation that prioritized attracting younger, more active seniors rather than the low-income and older population USCB envisioned supporting.
Last summer, after a decade of what USCB describes as “constant harassment” by BPRD in the new senior center, the group moved out and back into their own home on 5th Street, which is now the Bend Community Center.
They say they were pushed out by the district. Documents, letters and emails from the last 12 years show there were issues involving how much money USCB would contribute to the operating costs of the senior center; what priority their programs would have at the center; how quickly the district could evict USCB from the building; whether the sides were living up to their agreements with each other; whether the name of the BSC should be changed to remove the word senior; and on down to BPRD access to USCB cupboards or whether the tables had been put away properly.
“Pick, pick, pick,” said Reddick, making a biting motion with her hand. “We couldn't do anything right. When we moved to our last office, the joke was it was right next to the door.”
The parks district said this is wholly untrue. Horton said the district was constantly working to make space for USCB’s programs. Former USCB attorney Craig Edwards agrees.
“I never saw USCB’s programs squeezed out or told they couldn’t operate,” said Edwards, who counseled USCB for several years. “As I recall it, parks and rec was very accommodating to USCB. “There is some ostrich syndrome here. The building was going to be used as a senior center for the community of Bend. It did not necessarily mean that it was a center for USCB.”
The legal argument the group made to the parks district’s attorney Neil Bryant last week is that USCB contributed about half of the money needed to build the Bend Senior Center. Even if there is nothing in writing saying that USCB owned the building, Buchanan told Bryant the courts have looked at financial contributions as proof of partnerships.
Now that the partnership has dissolved, Buchanan believes USCB is legally entitled to get its money back.
“They aren’t getting their moneys worth out of the partnership,” said Buchanan. “Consider it a zero interest loan to the parks district.”
Taffy Gleason, who runs the Bend Community Center and sits on USCB’s board, said the legal ramifications may not end with this partnership argument.
“This is a classic example of taking advantage of old people,” she said. “They lost it all and they got nothing to show for it. And parks and rec gets to walk away with a building they would have never gotten.”
THE DISTRICT RESPONDS
This kind of demand is something BPRD Director Don Horton never expected.
“I was shocked,” said Horton.
He likens the situation to an upcoming partnership with the Bend Paddle Trail Alliance, which he said was planning to raise $900,000 for a new whitewater park at the Colorado Avenue bridge if the fall bond measure passes.
“If they decide to quit paddling there someday are they going to come back to us and ask for their money?” said Horton.
He said USCB has held a grudge against the district from nearly the beginning of the development of the Bend Senior Center, and that anger has clouded all USCB’s dealings with the district.
“It’s an organization that’s been angry for 10 years,” said Horton. “Ownership has always been the pet peeve.”
Owning the building is not something BPRD sought out, said Ron Garzini, who was the assistant city manager of the city of Bend at the time the city applied for the block grant to build the facility. Garzini now lives in Redmond and is a consultant to government agencies.
“The parks district was not enthused about a whole new program,” said Garzini, who managed the construction of the Bend Senior Center for the city. “[But] the city didn’t want to get in the business of operating a senior center.”
Garzini said that in order to get the grant money, the building had to be owned by a government agency, not a non-profit such as USCB. To him, BPRD made sense.
“Carrie [Ward], to her credit, agreed to take it on. It was not a normal duty for the parks district,” said Garzini, about Carrie Ward, the former executive director of the parks district.
Ward did not return a call for comment on this story.
Once ownership of the BSC fell to BPRD, state and federal laws required that the main function of the center had to fall into line with the mission of the district, said Horton.
“We only exist to provide parks and recreations programs, not social services, even if we wanted to,” said Horton.
Not only that, but the district also took on the operating expenses for the building, which are currently about $400,000 a year, said Horton.
All of that meant the district needed to appeal to a broad spectrum of seniors who paid for classes, programs and activities in the building. And that meant conflict with USCB.
“They were concerned about those younger seniors coming in,” said Horton, of the seniors in their 50s and 60s who were attracted to the district’s recreation classes. “The social services that needed to take place—they thought those were jeopardized. We wanted to broaden the age group, but not at the expense of one over the other.”
Documents, emails and letters from the last 12 years show BPRD staff were also frustrated that USCB didn’t help enough to offset the cost of operating the center; that the group didn’t fulfill its obligations such as providing volunteer greeters or attending advisory committee meetings; that USCB leadership did not submit annual reports of activities or communicate with BPRD staff as agreed; and that USCB members took out anger over BSC issues on BPRD staff who worked at the building.
Even with all the difficulties, Horton and current BPRD board members said the district never intended to push USCB out of the building.
“It was not the intention of the park district to kick them out or marginalize the seniors in any way,” said Ruth Williamson, a member of the BPRD board. “That that’s what the seniors took away from the experience is really a disappointment to me.”
Horton said things could have turned out better.
“Were there things that could have been done differently? Probably,” said Horton.
“[But] we’re gonna take this professionally and hold our heads high. If it comes to name calling, it’s not going to come from us.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
On a recent Friday afternoon, a group of five guys hung around the Bend Senior Center’s two pool tables razzing each other about who’s older. They got serious quickly when the talk turned to how the parks district runs the facility. They each pay $15 a month to play pool there—the prices jumped after USCB moved out last year, they said.
“We tried to protest, but it didn’t do any good,” said Mike Ward, 72, whose blue jeans were held up with wide black suspenders. “It’s a senior center. Seniors should play for free.”
Down the hall a group of about a dozen seniors sits in folding chairs around folding card tables playing pinochle. They, too, must pay the district to play here with their friends.
“They gotta pay for the lights,” said Judy Pipes cheerfully. But she is also troubled by the fallout of the relationship between USCB and BPRD.
“If I listen to [USCB], I would say they were not treated right,” said Pipes. “They broke their backs building this place.”
Regardless of whether USCB’s claims about the way they were treated by parks and rec are valid, district officials said they aren’t going to be “blackmailed” into paying out nearly a million dollars.
“Are we legally obligated to make this right? And if we are, fine,” said district Board Member Scott Wallace. “I am not of a mind to settle something just to make it go away just because of the timing [with the bond].”
For now, district officials are relying on attorney Bryant to wade through Buchanan’s partnership argument. Horton said it’s unlikely that the board will consider the issue until early September.
That timeline may not be fast enough for USCB.
“I would like to believe the park district has the best of intentions and we are all going to solve this very, very well,” said Buchanan. “But we are not going to wait for them. If they ignore us, one of the remedies would be going to court. ”
Buchanan is hopeful it won’t come to that.
“I’m pretty sure that, Don Horton is not going to be wild about it but I think some of the board members have expressed an interest in trying to resolve this,” said Buchanan. “It could be an example of how folks can resolve their problems. It could be an example of what Juniper Utility could have been.”