For many Arlington County senior residents, county-sponsored classes, field trips and other activities provide more than an affordable learning experience.

Many seniors have for years depended on the activities, offered primarily through the Office of Senior Adult Programs, to make or see friends.

So five months ago, when county officials, citing budget problems, suddenly canceled four overnight bus trips and increased activity fees for the rest of the fiscal year, seniors responded with alarm.

The county has since reinstated the trips, patched the office's budget for the time being and announced it will expand the number of activities offered by shuffling staff positions.

However, many of the 250 seniors who gathered at Culpepper Garden Senior Center this month to hear county officials' ideas for the new, improved program walked away still skeptical that changes are needed at all.

"Everyone's afraid they're going to wreck the {travel} program . . . . There are all kinds of rumors going around that make people uneasy," said Aileen Woods, 82. "We have the best program in the country. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

County officials say that the office for senior adults overspent by about 25 percent a $397,197 budget during the last fiscal year and also is expected to end the current fiscal year on Saturday with a deficit.

According to Alice Foster, director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Resources, which oversees the office of senior adults, most of the deficit was caused by activity coordinators assigning too many staff hours to meet seniors' demands for popular day and overnight bus trips and by setting participant fees too low on some classes to cover the costs.

To tighten the program budget and expand the activities offered, a task force of county officials and senior adults appointed by Foster has recommended consolidating senior activities, currently offered by two of the department's six divisions, under a single supervisor and a single budget. Other changes would include cutting back to one paid staff member per trip and standardizing fees for classes.

Many seniors are unhappy about the task force's recommendations, even if they would enable the county to offer more activities, because the complexion of the program would change.

For example, seniors object to the fact that two popular staff members who coordinate trips would no longer be allowed to join in and supervise trips as well.

"There's one thing that {seniors} are strongly against. That is the supervisors not going on the trips," said Athena Matsos, 70, member of the Cherrydale Senior Club.

Seniors "feel secure" about attending trips with the two supervisors because of their experience in handling emergencies during trips, said Matsos. "We want to keep it that way."

Many seniors and some county officials disagree with Foster's assessment that the program overspent on trips and criticized the proposed changes as penalizing seniors.

The county did not actually lose money on the trips, despite how it looks in the ledgers, they say, because participant fees were set to cover all the costs, including additional labor.

Spending more money than authorized by the County Board to meet seniors' demand for the popular trips and compensating with fees was "a generally accepted practice" of the Office of Senior Adults since the mid-1980s and should have come as no surprise to the county this year, said Barbara Cardellichio, who directed the senior adult office before resigning this month for what she said were personal reasons.

The practice of overspending "did need to be corrected . . . but the seniors felt it could have been done without cutting their programs," Cardellichio said. "The programs that were cut were the ones {the seniors} were paying for."

As a result, she added, "the seniors have come to doubt the program . . . and they have depended on it so much."

Foster defended her actions as necessary.

"We have a real overexpenditure," not just an overexpenditure according to the books, she said.

Although in past years, the recreation department had enough money to absorb extra costs, "as things became tight all over, the degree of overexpenditure became more difficult to absorb," she said.

The task force's recommendation about trip supervisors "is not a done deal," Foster said. "Nothing is changing until we have a full assessment" of the finances and the task force recommendations.

To clear up disagreement on how the program may have overspent funds, the county has conducted an audit of the senior adult activities and will release a summary of the results later this summer. County officials said county policy does not allow them to release the complete results.