The death of senior services

The decline of a critical county program puts many of our impoverished seniors into an even worse placeRenters are also under the gun due to cuts at the Tenants' Rights Center

Grady Tarbutton is the director of Washoe County Senior Services.

Grady Tarbutton is the director of Washoe County Senior Services.


If your rights as a renter have been violated, start here:

An American flag hangs from a wall in the Washoe County Cafeteria. Daily at 11 a.m., hundreds of older men and women line up below that flag for free food. Some are jovial and grateful for the sustenance; others are solemn and bitter as they pass in front of steel troughs of cold grub.

They gather the food on their trays, file onto benches and hunch over the meals. On a recent day, that meal was a single slice of sandwich meat on a single slice of bread, a scoop of potato salad, a scoop of blood-red beets, and a chocolate chip cookie. Between sips of milk and coffee, their feeble voices were barely louder than the scrape of utensils on their plastic plates in the cavernous room. Here is what they have been talking about: The decline of the agency that is keeping them alive.

“Death by a thousand cuts,” as Washoe County Senior Services Director Grady Tarbutton told TV stations during a recent media blitz. The 15-employee cut has been on the books since April, but wasn’t widely reported until less than a week before they were set to take effect; the very day the Reno News & Review began investigating. Tarbutton directed the media focus to a nurse who travels to hundreds of senior’s homes and helps keep at least 15 critical patients alive. Her job is one of the positions being cut, and some of her patients will likely die without her daily visits, she said.

But among the ranks of the elderly, death is pretty common. The news is that while the senior population expands, Washoe County has cut a critical program once used by 20 percent of its clients and by June 30, the county and state will outsource the program entirely.

“We have had to cut the number of recipients in the range of 1,500 down to 700 a year,” Tarbutton said of the Senior Law Project. For a suggested donation of $50 or less, the office helps with wills, affidavits of death, power of attorney, consumer disputes, social security issues, government benefits and landlord-tenant issues.

“This is not where we want to be,” Tarbutton said, adding that budget cuts have whittled the entire senior services department down from 43 employees in 2007 to just 25 now.

By the end of July, elimination of five more positions in the Senior Law Project will bring the county Senior Services Department staff to less than half of what it once was, even as the senior population has nearly doubled from 40,000 to 76,000 over the same period.

Outsourcing to non-profits is where the county jobs and services are going. “Their salary and benefits packages are less than the county,” Tarbutton says. To find out how much less, just walk down the hall to where the county employees work in the Senior Law Project.

“We have been advised by the union not to talk to media,” said one of the employees, declining to say her name. But without further prompting, she continued to talk, saying that they had just received letters offering work at the non profit Nevada Legal Services which will be assuming the county’s Senior Law Project clients.

“I pull in $52,000 a year,” said the County Senior Law Project legal secretary, adding that the new non-profit is offering her the same job for $27,000. “The salary difference is just too …” she frowned and shrugged, holding up each of her palms like unbalanced scales of justice.

“It is sad that they don’t want to continue with us because of the knowledge base,” said Rhea Gertken, directing attorney with Nevada Legal Services in Reno.

“We do pay people less,” she said. “That is not representative of the quality of advocates that we have. The staff we have remain despite the fact that it is less than half the pay.”

She said they will be hiring more people and even offering new services to the county clients like foreclosure mediation. She said her offices have been doing the county’s work for nine months already. Not only has Nevada Legal Services been doing the county work, they will be moving into the county offices.

A non-profit moving into government offices is a challenge. “It is causing some headaches,” Gertken said. “You can’t just move in. There are logistical things. You have another layer of them saying you have to talk to facilities management. You have to talk to tech services. You have to get everything approved and the county commission has to weigh in.”

It’s a learning process for everyone. While Nevada Legal Services has been an institution in rural areas for years, “This is the first time in Nevada that one of the established legal service agencies has assumed senior services in a major county,” Gertken said, adding, “It is sort of new in terms of Nevada as a whole.” She also worked in Las Vegas where she said the city turned its senior law program over to a new non-profit that was formed by the actual city law employees themselves.

When asked if more outsourcing is on the way, Tarbutton said, “It is all going to depend on if there is someone in the community who can do the work or not.”

Not everything is on the table. There are some state and federal minimum requirements. “The social work program is something we have to keep. Aging and disability resource and adult day care are all services that we have to keep.”

Know your rights:

Washoe County’s seniors are not the only ones who have it rough in these days of declining money and services. Renters, too, are having a difficult time exercising their rights, and their advocates are also hard hit.

According to the Nevada Supreme Court, Access to Justice Commission report, March 11, 2013, review of Nevada Legal Services: “There was a precipitous drop in cases without litigation. The loss was entirely from the Tenants’ Rights Center, due to the layoffs of half the TRC’s staff.”

Declines in grants from Congress cut the budget by more than a half-million dollars last year, and NLS’s total number of contacts with clients was down by half from 2007 to 2011. Meanwhile, 66 percent of the 88,000 client contacts in the state were for housing according to the report.

“And we know that there are people who [need help who] are not contacting us,” says NLS directing attorney in Reno Rhea Gertken. When NLS moves into the Washoe County Senior Services building off Ninth and Sutro streets, potential new clients will be right down the hall every day at lunch. Many have never asked for legal help.

“Sandy,” 64, is anticipating problems with her landlord. She did not wish to give her name for fear her landlord would single her out for further mistreatment. “They are going to give me a big stink about the security deposit when I move out. The rug was dirty when I moved in. The walls were dirty. They didn’t want to fix the garbage disposal which was leaking. My brother was with me, and he said it was substandard. I called him [the landlord] an asshole!”

Photo By

“A lot of people take these things very personally,” said Rhea Gertken, directing attorney of the Reno Office of Nevada Legal Services. “You don’t want it to become confrontational. A lot of times it is based on a misunderstanding, miscommunication, or the tenants and landlords don’t like each other.”

“Sandy” touched on one of the most common problems, according to Gertken: Security deposits. Even experts in the system can become victims. For instance, Pat Barnes who once worked for the County’s Senior Law Project wrote to the Reno News & Review to tell her story of having a $500 security deposit taken with no accounting of how the money had been used by the landlord.

“That right there is a violation,” Gertken said. “And we see that all the time where landlords are not even communicating with the tenants.” She said she has clients every week with security deposit issues.

Having once worked for the county agency that deals with security deposits, Barnes decided to take on the issue. She had researched Nevada’s tenant law N.R.S. 118A, which says a security deposit can only be used for three things:

Remedying any default of the tenant in the payments of rent.

Repairing damages to the premises other than normal wear.

Cleaning the dwelling unit.

Armed with the law, Barnes went to small claims court. At the hearing she said the attorney for the management company claimed $150 of the deposit was used for “vacuuming new carpet and dumping the old carpet.” Vacuuming new carpet is clearly not part of a former tenant’s responsibility under the law. Barnes says that Judge Pierre Hascheff caught that mistake but knocked off only $50 from the cleaning bill.

“It’s only for extraordinary damages,” said Gertken. “A lot of times they are talking about painting when it is only a couple of nail holes in the wall. If there are kids and someone wrote on the walls with a sharpie, then that is something that the tenant has to pay for.”

But knowing the law doesn’t guarantee justice. “What are my options?” Barnes wrote, feeling that an appeal was in order. “The court clerk’s office said it would cost more than $500 just to file an appeal,” Barnes wrote.

Hascheff was at a conference and could not be reached for comment.

And the nightmare wasn’t over, she said the landlord then filed a counter claim for hundreds of dollars to clean oil spots off the driveway. That claim was thrown out of court, but the whole mess was an aggravation and the injustice really hit home for Barnes, who had dedicated herself to defending tenants’ rights.

“Security deposit theft is no different from any other kind of theft,” she wrote. “It’s the tenant’s money, not the landlord’s. Security deposit theft is the same as a pickpocket lifting your wallet or a robber stealing the money you just withdrew from the ATM. It’s theft.”

Using an attorney who specializes in tenant rights like Nevada Legal Services doesn’t guarantee justice either, because like Barnes’ case, many judges can be as dull as a gavel on tenants’ rights.

“Yes, we have some disagreements in court with some of the judges of what is appropriate under the law,” Gertken said. “And we are pretty sure we were right under the law.”

Gertken is not alone in encountering judges who need a little schooling on tenants rights. “It is a real education process,” said Michael Cirac, a former Reno legal columnist and attorney who represents tenants and landlords.

“The laws have become more complex,” Cirac says. “I would like to see landlords educated in the basic Landlord Tenant Act in Nevada and state and federal requirements,” he said. “That would go a long way to solving these problems.”

He points out that mobile home managers are already required to take classes.

“I do think it is a good idea,” he said. “They are required to attend every year. Expanding that to residential landlords would be beneficial.”

Misunderstanding eviction law is another common pitfall. “Tenants can effectively defend themselves against it, but the time frames can be daunting,” Gertken says, adding that tenants only have five to seven days to respond to a summary eviction notice, and if they don’t respond, “The tenant isn’t entitled to a notice before the sheriff comes out to take them out.” Within 24 hours, the tenant has a sheriff with a gun at their door telling them its time to leave immediately. “Then the issue is, what is going to happen to their stuff? They (the landlord) can keep it for 30 days but can charge for storage and moving.”

Factor into the equation that the forms, notices, laws and documents include legalese that is a foreign language to many people, especially some native Spanish speakers. It doesn’t take long to find individuals with issues with landlords at Washoe County Senior Services. Like the others, an elderly woman declined to give her name for fear of retaliation. She said she got a letter from the landlord saying her rent would be reduced $40, but her electricity bill would be going up.

“Right now my electricity bill is $50,” the Hispanic woman said in Spanish. “I don’t understand any of this. The majority of us [in this apartment complex] are Hispanic, and we can’t read the papers. We don’t understand any of it. A class would be good.”

Nevada Legal Services has conducted classes in Spanish and has staff that can translate. So part of the battle is just letting the public know that free and reduced-cost legal services do exist. Right now NLS can see clients the same week that they make contact.

While classes are good, there is one way to reach every Spanish speaker who may get a notice. “None of these notices are required in Spanish,” Gertken said. “There is a drive to get some of them translated to Spanish. It is a direction that I believe everyone is moving toward right now.”

For Cirac, a start is a little understanding that this is a highly emotional and complicated issue that involves almost everyone. “I don’t think tenants go into this with the mind set of being difficult or egregious. They are going into it with how can I make my life better, the difficulty is getting the two parties to come together in what is reasonable.

And there is one last possible partial solution. “I would hope that the private legal community does institute more of a sliding-scale fee basis,” she said. “I think that there is an epidemic right now of a lack of an ability to afford legal services. The fees being charged by private attorneys are only growing.”