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In another round of reductions to programs supporting California seniors, legislators approved slashing wages for close to 7,000 in-home care providers in the North Bay to below $10 an hour beginning this summer.

About 6,800 In-Home Supportive Services providers could see their wages drop to $9.50 an hour for work that helps low-income seniors live independently. The workers duties range from grocery shopping and providing transportation to bathing, dressing and personal care.

“The people that provide these services are very important. They keep seniors in their homes,” said Nick Trunzo, county of Marin director of aging and adult services.

“It is expensive to live in the Bay Area, and it is difficult enough to manage with a low-wage job. ... Our biggest worry is that it will be more difficult to find these caregivers.”

In-home care providers’ earnings are paid through a combination of federal, state and local funding, each group paying a percent of a previously decided wage. As part of the budget cuts, the state said it will only reimburse its percentage up to a $9.50-an-hour wage, down from the current North Bay rate of $11.50.

Even though the state will pay less, Marin and Sonoma County officials said they will continue to pay their workers the previous $11.50 wage by paying a larger piece of the pie. But in times where most regions are facing their own budget hurdles, it will be difficult to pay more for long. A Napa official said wages for its providers will drop to the $9.50 rate.

“It is a shame for people here in Napa. If we could keep it above the $9.50 level, we would,” said Elizabeth Emmett, spokeswoman for Napa County.

Despite the changes, Ms. Emmett said she still expects the program to grow this year. Marin and Sonoma officials said they will continue to serve everyone who needs the service, but the providers will definitely be spread a little thinner.

“Being an [in-home] provider is really demanding work, and the impact of paying people less would be great,” said Diane Kaljian, division director of adult and aging services for Sonoma.

“People supporting themselves doing this work would have to find another job, work more hours, or choose to do something else.”

Legislators approved the cuts in February, and the change in rates will go into effect July 1, unless the decision is rescinded before that time.

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Although 2,000 Bennett Valley Senior Center members will have to pay double this year to participate in the program, Activities Coordinator Jan Post-Schwarz said all are happy to do so if it means saving the center.

Earlier this year, the Santa Rosa City Council officially took the city of Santa Rosa Recreation & Parks Department-run center off the budget hit list after debating the possibility of ending the program. Instead, members voluntarily agreed to pay higher membership fees to keep it open for at least another year.

The recently inaugurated municipal body was faced with closing a projected $23 million budget shortfall and had to shear about $15 million from the budget.

“When you are faced with budget constraints, it takes creativity to hold on to as many services as you can. The people at the senior center helped us create solutions so we could keep this valuable service in the community,” said Councilmember Veronica Jacobi.

Senior center membership rates will increase to $24 per year up from $12, and drop in rates to $5 after July 1. Special events prices will also increase.

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The Sonoma County Area Agency on Aging is currently developing a senior transportation program that mimics a successful venture by the Sebastopol Area Senior Center and Russian River Senior Resource Center.

Agency Program Planner Ginny Doyle said the county division hopes to launch the volunteer-driver program elsewhere in the county some time in the next six months.

“The program is really geared toward keeping seniors from being isolated; helping them go to the grocery store, socialize or go shopping around town,” she said.

“So far we have been really surprised by the community response.”

The drivers can also help seniors better maintain medical care by driving them to and from their doctor’s office or pharmacy.

Volunteer drivers are currently undergoing the screening and training process. Initially, they will provide transportation to members of the Vintage House Senior Center in Sonoma. Ms. Doyle said eventually they hope to expand the program to all outlying areas of the county.

The agency is also hosting a “CarFit” program for seniors May 21 at the Santa Rosa Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Trained technicians will conduct an evaluation of participants’ vehicles and suggest possible safety adjustments.

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Submit items for this column to D. Ashley Furness at afurness@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4257 or fax 707-521-5292.