Free lunches for low-income seniors will return to the Bennett Valley Senior Center soon, following the Santa Rosa City Council's vote to waive the higher rental fees that drove the program from the center.

The Council on Aging program served hot lunches to seniors at the center rent free for 14 years until new fees passed in July would have resulted in the nonprofit being charged $22,000 per year to use the facility.

Unable to afford the new fees, the program stopped serving meals at the center in August.

The departure of the program was an "unintended consequence" of new fees that sought to treat all nonprofit organizations equally, said Nanette Smejkal, the city's director of recreation and parks.

The council faced criticism for a move that was seen as eliminating hot meals for low-income seniors.

Third District Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the former chief executive officer of the Council on Aging, fired off a sharply worded letter to Mayor Scott Bartley after she learned of the new fees.

"I think we can all agree that depriving senior citizens of nutritious meals is not a good way to tighten your fiscal belt," she wrote.

The council in September instructed staff to see what accommodations could be made for the program as well as a separate nonprofit tax aide program that was similarly affected.

Once the meal program was reviewed it was clear it served a valuable goal of helping keep the city's residents healthy, Smejkal said.

"We did think the situation merited special consideration," she said.

City staff doesn't have the authority to waive fees set by the council, Smejkal said.

The fees haven't technically been waived. Instead a licensing agreement was struck that will once again allow the program to use the center's kitchen and one room at no charge for three hours on weekdays.

"We're thrilled," said Marrianne McBride, chief executive officer of the Council on Aging. "Unfortunately, when you are providing free meals, you can only afford free rent."

The city expects to soon bring forward a similar agreement with AARP Foundation Tax Aide, a federally funded program that uses volunteers to provide free tax preparation to low income seniors.

That agreement will allow the group to use a community building in Franklin Park rent free during tax season, Smejkal said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or On Twitter @citybeater.