William Alatriste for the City Council

Margaret Chin, chairwoman of the Council's committee on aging (file).

At a Tuesday preliminary budget hearing for the Department of the Aging, City Council members and aging services advocates seemed exasperated discussing funding for the city’s myriad senior services.

The four-hour hearing, in which representatives from over 30 non-profits, advocacy groups and community centers who serve seniors testified, highlighted many high-need areas in aging services, among them caregiver support and mental health care.

But the highest priority seemed to be finding more funding for meals provided by DFTA through their 249 senior centers and a home-delivered meal program. Meal funding was also the topic of a City Council hearing only weeks prior.

“Fairness does not have an age cut-off,” said Katelyn Hosey, a policy associate LiveOn New York, a nonprofit that advocates for elders. Hosey testified that New York spends 20 percent below the national average on senior meals.

Provider after provider, several with tears in their eyes, expressed dismay at the city’s inadequate reimbursement rate for meals, which led some to turn away seniors and which makes it difficult to pay kitchen staff a living wage.

Senior centers have complained about funding disparities in their meal plans for years. Union Settlement, an East Harlem service provider issued a report on the inequities in 2017. In January 2018, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli investigated funding disparities in the city’s senior meals. The report found a wide range of reimbursement rates paid by DFTA to its many senior centers and non-profit sub-contractors, ranging from $3 per meal to $12, depending on center. DFTA has said this resulted from the acquisition of senior centers previously under management by NYCHA, HRA and the City Council, as well as the higher cost of certain culturally-specific meals. Kosher meals, for example, were more expensive than other meals.

Last year the City Council negotiated $20 million in new funding from the city to bring more equity in meal funding and other crucial services. It was to be phased-in over three years, beginning with $10 million in fiscal year 2018, with an additional $10 million arriving in 2021.

It was agreed DFTA would determine how to allocate the money with a model budget based on requests from providers. In stages, the full plan would raise reimbursements for programming as well as kitchen staff and fund culturally-specific food at targeted centers. The City Council and advocates say DFTA hasn’t completed the second phase of the plan, which focused on food and kitchen staff reimbursement, nor had they provided an update prior to the hearing.

The food funding was to be preceded by a study by a private consulting company called Guidehouse. That study has been delayed for months, and it’s now expected to arrive in late Spring of this year.

“We can’t wait for a study on something we all know: food is more expensive than in 2014,” Council Member Paul Vallone said at the hearing.

In a statement preceding a February 27 hearing on the model budget, the Committee on Aging stated, “In the meantime, senior centers continue to struggle to adequately fund the meals they provide to seniors and pay the kitchen staff who cook these meals.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Councilmember Margaret Chin referred to the model budget process as “broken.” Chin and DFTA Acting Commissioner Caryn Resnick disagreed over whether more meal funding should have been added to DFTA’s 2020 budget request. Resnick said the funding would appear in the budget in fiscal year 2021, but Chin and advocates said this would not be soon enough.

The City Council had been left to fill in gaps for what Chin referred to as core services— including meals—several years in a row using discretionary funding, to the tune of $30 million in 2018. Chin said this funding was not intended for basic needs but rather for “innovative” programs, and asked why DFTA did not request more money for meals. Last year the City Council funded 51 DFTA programs, of which 4 were addressed by the model budget.

Chin was also concerned about the continued proliferation of social adult day cares, Medicaid-funded centers that are meant to provide food and exercise for impaired seniors, but which have been criticized for targeting low-income immigrants with unhealthy fast food and offering no real health services. Adult day cares now outnumber city senior centers and in Queens they do so at a rate of 2 to 1.

More broadly, many advocates expressed concern that the mayor’s DFTA budget didn’t begin to address the city’s ballooning senior population. While the DFTA budget has increased 60 percent in the past five years to a projected $356 million in 2020, the budget per-person has actually decreased by 1 percent under Mayor de Blasio, according to testimony by Christian Gonzalez Rivera, a researcher at the Center For an Urban Future.

The think tank released a report last week showing the rapid growth of the senior population, more of whom are aging into poverty in New York City than in prior years. The DFTA budget represents one half of one percent of the city’s overall budget, according to the Council. Senior centers and meals account for nearly $200 million of that budget.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) also asked DFTA to identify $2 million to be cut from its budget to balance the city’s books, part of a program called Project to Eliminate the Gap.

Throughout the meeting City Council members, led by Chair Chin, pressed DFTA not to submit a budget to the mayor with the requested $2 million in cuts. This suggestion was echoed by advocates, several of whom mirrored Council members in referring to this money as “non-negotiable.”

The topic of mental health also arose: Councilmember Diana Ayala asked for the selection criteria used to determine which senior centers hosted mental health services under the ThriveNYC program. Ayala had requested the same information from previous commissioner Donna Corrado at a 2018 hearing on senior mental health.

Ayala expressed frustration that her Council district, which overlaps with the most impoverished Congressional district in the nation, did not receive the more robust mental health services that Thrive NYC partnerships provide. The mayor’s 2020 budget includes an additional $1.7 million for the Thrive Geriatric Mental Health initiative and DFTA says it will expand the service into an additional up to 25 centers. Thirty thousand seniors use NYC senior centers every day, according to DFTA.

The mayor released his preliminary budget in early February. The March 12 budget hearing was a chance for advocates to weigh in before the Council provides their formal response in April, after which the mayor will release an executive budget. Following another round of hearings, the Council and the mayor must reach agreement on an adopted budget by July 1.