As advocates for a range of social service programs brace for the worst under the mayor’s budget proposals, some senior centers recently learned a harsh lesson: Watch the money, even after it’s in the budget.

In late January, the city Department for the Aging (DFTA) told administrators at 38 centers that funding had run out for their English as a Second Language classes. According to the agency, the City Council never restored $500,000 DFTA says the mayor cut last summer, despite promises to do so. To keep the program running for the 1,500 elderly immigrants who had been using it, DFTA officials say the agency had been paying for the program out of its own coffers for six months, but couldn’t afford to do so any longer.

The Council says that’s nonsense. In a letter to the DFTA commissioner last month, Council Finance Director Larian Angelo wrote that $500,000 for ESL was in the 2003 budget.

While both sides gather documentation, advocates for seniors wonder about the classes’ future. At the ARC Fort Washington Senior Center in Washington Heights, what was an eight-hour-a-week program for 23 students has been whittled down to four hours taught by volunteers. Eight students have dropped out.

At a City Council hearing on April 15, DFTA Deputy Commissioner Sally Renfrow promised that the Department of Youth and Community Development would soon start up afternoon ESL classes at senior centers.

But some advocates say that’s a poor alternative. For one thing, said several senior center representatives, many seniors spend their afternoons caring for grandchildren.

In the meantime, in the midst of intense budget debates, fiscal watchdogs are wondering how this accounting mishap could have happened. “I’ve seen City Council’s budget and I would have known if there had been a cut,” said Bobbie Sackman, public policy director for the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City. “There was no budget process to discuss such a cut, no hearing, nothing.”

When asked last week why DFTA didn’t mention the ESL termination during budget discussions late last year, Renfrow said it was “an oversight.”

Regardless of how the controversy gets resolved, Sackman assumes that ESL money for seniors really will end up on the block of impending budget cuts. “When we fight to get it back,” she says, “we at least want to know it’s going to be used for the intended purpose.”