The Meals on Wheels contract with the Gold Beach Senior Center has been terminated due to fraud in reporting the number of meals consumed and in turn, the amount of money the center is reimbursed for providing them, officials said.

The center is still providing meals for the two dozen or so inbound and indigent residents through a senior Meals program of its own, said Melissa Dovenspike of the South Coast Business Employment Corp. (SCBEC), in Coos Bay, which administers the Meals on Wheels program through the Area Agency on Aging.

Regular meals continue Tuesdays through Fridays and every-other-Saturday breakfasts at the center.

“It’s very disappointing,” Dovenspike said, who was alerted to the problem late last year. “We’ve never had it happen before. They (the board) were given plenty of warning… they did nothing to try to fix it.”

Criminal charges are not pending at this point, she said.

The Meals on Wheels program provides 60 cents in federal money to offset the cost of each meal, which costs $5.65.

Dovenspike said it was learned that when people in need were coming in for the lunches, one or more of the volunteers was adding extra names to the roster, allegedly in an attempt to collect the extra money for the center. The list is copied and sent to the Coos Bay office for reimbursement from the federal program.

“We’ve had issues for the past two-and-a-half years, of invoices not being accurate to the transaction record,” Dovenspike said. “I’ve gone down to Gold Beach many times to find out why — if it’s an honest mistake because someone can’t add? But this enforced that there was misguidance going on.

“Even after the fact, when they knew they were being scrutinized, they still turned in invoices that were not correct,” she continued. “We could see one or two numbers being off, but when there’s 26, that’s a problem.”

The roster of names

Larry Johnson, who resigned from the board in February after about six years in various capacities, said there were times his wife, Sue, signed in both of their names on the meal sheet when he was hunting.

“My wife did sign my name when I went hunting,” Johnson said of a five-day hunting trip last Novemer. “When you’ve been married 40-some years, you sign her name and mine. She never even thought about it. She signed both and just went on. Technically she was (signing), but when you get in the habit of signing things for each other … it’s just habit.”

Dovenspike said she is reviewing past reports to determine how much the program might have been bilked.

“We’re looking into how long it went on to determine how much money (is involved),” she said. “It’s hard to find, because we don’t know how long it went on and it’s hard to pinpoint the exact number of (people) who signed in.”

Often, visitors to the area take advantage of the meals available, making it that much harder to figure out if the names on the roster are legitimate.

Johnson said there have been times when people have signed their name on the meals roster, but forget to print it, as required. He said he copied an illegible signature onto the form that is submitted to SCBEC — and was called on it.

“It was a name I’d never seen,” he said. “I crossed it out and tried to copy it to the sheet we turn in, and they said that was forgery. That’s not forgery; (the signer) didn’t print their name.”

“It’s just really sad,” said Meryl Boice, the center’s board president, who declined to discuss details. “We’re doing a really good job down here and people are really happy. We are just going to do our best and do what we can. Things will always come out good when you’re willing to work. We’re just going to keep working at it.”

According to Boice, the center holds fundraiser breakfasts twice a month to make money to pay for the remainder of the cost of delivering food to homebound residents. The senior center remains financially stable, she added.

Missing cash?

Another issue Johnson said occurred after a Saturday meal during the Christmas holidays when banks were closed.

Money was placed in the safe, he said, but he was accused of taking it home for safekeeping and upon its return, it was alleged to be short $500.

“The money never left here,” he said. “And Tuesday after the holiday it was still here in the safe. That money never left here.”

He has spoken with an attorney, and thinks the matter might be taken up in court at some point.

“It’s an absolute fabrication,” he said of a former volunteer who turned over the information to SCBEC. “She’s gold and we’re not, and they’re taking everything that she says as truth and everything we say as not.”

Standing strong

Boice emphasized that the center is not closing, despite rumors she’s heard. It serves lunches on Tuesdays through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. SCBEC plans to pay a delivery person to get meals to others in Gold Beach through the Meals on Wheels program in Brookings starting Tuesday, Johnson said.

The twice-monthly Saturday meals benefit grosses between $500 and $600 a month, Johnson said, but expenses are high.

The center is holding a dinner theater April 26 and April 27 to raise funds, as well. The theme is the “Fabulous 50s” and will feature a malt shop and jukebox with a silent auction. Dinner starts at 6 p.m. and costs $25 for the performance and dinner: stuffed pork or chicken cordon bleu with side dishes.

“Everyone’s been pretty devastated about the loss of Meals on Wheels,” Johnson said. “It’s not the money but what is everyone going to do? You can’t let people starve. It just tears your heart out. It’s one of those things we’ll have to take care of. People have to eat.”

“We’ll make it,” Boice said. “I believe everything comes out for the good. We’re trying real hard.”