CITY HALL — Every four years, RoseMary Regalbuto has the task of begging for money.

Although she benefits from it in some way, her main goal isn’t to line her own pockets, or scratch up food for herself. She’s actually buying meals for others.

Regalbuto is the president of Westside Meals on Wheels, a program that delivers hot and cold meals to seniors, invalids and anyone else who can’t find a way to secure nutritious meals.

The youngest that receives service is 27. The oldest is 104.

Every four years, Regalbuto represents her organization and the clients it serves before the City Council and requests funding to help support the seven paid staff and 500 volunteers in their efforts to bring food to the 357 clients it served between July 2010 and June 2011.

For the 25 years that Regalbuto has been involved with the Meals on Wheels program, City Hall has helped to fund a portion of its budget.

This year was the most critical yet, as the program dipped to an operating deficit of $39,000 for the first time ever, Regalbuto said.

“We have declining demographics, the economy has impacted donations and then the cost of food, the insurance we have to carry,” Regalbuto said.

In the most recent budgeting cycle, the Department of Community and Cultural Services suggested flat funding from the previous year’s allocation of $47,305.

The funding includes a 3 percent cut built into the 2010 figure, which continues to bite into the organization’s revenue at the same time that federal funding, state funding and private donations are drying up.

The organization also subsidizes meals for the poor, with some paying only 50 cents a week for meals that cost more like $6 a day, some of which are prepared at local luxury hotels that donate their time and kitchen space to the cause.

That means costs are rising as the dollar drops in value with less coming in from traditional funding sources and fewer paying seniors are there to help balance out the 31 percent of clients that are below the poverty line.

Top that with an extra 12 cents per meal that her suppliers charge to comply with City Hall’s Styrofoam ban, and the rising cost of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the problems begin to mount. They’ll hit a deficit of nearly $80,000 next fiscal year.

It’s like the death of a thousand cuts for nonprofits trying to squeak by, particularly one like Meals on Wheels that won’t get a population boost until today’s Baby Boom generation begins to need its services.

“My problem is we need to fortify our serves to remain viable until the Boomers come in, and then we need to be able to make changes,” Regalbuto said.

The problems faced at Meals on Wheels are similar to those confronting many nonprofits in Santa Monica and beyond: Too many people chasing too few dollars.

In the same budgeting cycle, only five organizations saw their funding raised incrementally, while the rest either stayed flat, got reduced, or were dropped altogether.

Demand outstripped available funding ($7.4 million) by $4.3 million, so 15 agencies that asked for funding were left out entirely.

In a time where resources are scarce, squeaky wheels just need to get squeakier, Regalbuto said.

Volunteers that go door to door to deliver meals and spend time with their charges are also dropping off paper plates, but not for normal use.

Instead, clients are asked to put the reasons Meals on Wheels is important to them on the plates as part of an “Empty Plates” campaign to prove the value of the program as it seeks to reach seniors and others that need its dwindling resources.

One Meals on Wheels client, who didn’t wish to be named for something so controversial, said that she’d gotten one of the plates from her volunteer, who comes by with lunch and dinner five days a week.

“I have no family, and Meals on Wheels has meant a lot to me,” the woman said. “Going to the supermarket and stuff, it can be very difficult.”

The client suffers from multiple disabilities, and had poor nutrition before the program intervened with dietitian-created meals.

She’s already prepared her ‘plate,’ which her volunteer will be by to pick up any day.

“I put on mine that it would be a threat to my income and health if I lost Meals on Wheels,” she said.

The City Council will vote to approve or amend the staff recommendations at its June 21 meeting. The budget is very tight this year, and for several years to come, said Councilmember Bob Holbrook. Giving to one organization is the same as cutting from another.

“We’re in a hard position,” Holbrook said. “We are responsible to provide city services. Social services are outside the center of that wheel. The things they do are important and necessary, but they’re not the primary focus of the city: Fire, police, trash pick up, public health, sewer treatments and water systems. The things that go unnoticed sometimes.”

ashley@smdp.com

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