Jarrett Murphy

Meal funding was a prime topic on Wednesday at City Hall, when seniors and staff from centers across the city converged at the City Council to meet with their members and stage a large rally on the front steps of the Hall.

The City Council’s Committee on Aging convened for an executive budget hearing on Tuesday, reviewing city priorities and pushing for more funding. Senior center meals and caregiver support came up, but no topic generated as much concern as the city’s proposal to close five Department for the Aging senior clubs and seven NYCHA-operated senior clubs, with plans to shift seniors to nearby centers. The senior clubs are considered separate from the 249 senior centers the city operates, though they offer many of the same services.

Committee on Aging Chair Margaret Chin accused the city of playing a “cynical game,” with the clubs and called the projected savings of $885,000* “paltry.” Other Council members including Diana Ayala, Daniel Dromm, Ruben Diaz, Laurie Cumbo, Vanessa Gibson, Peter Koo and Adrienne Adams all expressed dismay about the at the hearing.

The mayor’s executive budget would end NYCHA’s operation of senior clubs, closing seven clubs currently under NYCHA management and putting the remaining seven NYCHA clubs under DFTA management. Five DFTA managed clubs would also be closed and its seniors redirected to other sites.

DFTA justifies the closings as the result of poor attendance, safety issues and lack of accessibility for persons with disabilities. The agency also said closing the clubs would create $885,000 in savings, a large chunk of the $2 million in savings that the mayor’s office requested of DFTA under its “program to eliminate the gap,” or PEG.

Under the PEG, City Hall requests specific cuts from all agencies, which then comb their budgets and decide where to make cuts. In addition to the closing of senior clubs, DFTA will implement a partial hiring freeze, removing six vacancies from across the agency.

The overall DFTA budget would increase under the executive budget, however, with new expenditures of $11 million in 2019 and $3.5 million in 2020. And while some clubs face closure, DFTA would bring 19 clubs permanently under its portfolio, adding them to the budget in perpetuity—or “baselining” in budget parlance—at a cost of $1.5 million. Part of that amount includes $120,000 in funding for transportation to bring seniors from the clubs that have been closed.

Councilmembers opposed to closures cited increased commutes, lack of cultural competency at the new sites, and the loss of community connections.

“We will fight this tooth and nail,” Cumbo said. She expressed dismay that seniors who may have mobility challenges would be asked to travel further. DFTA says all the clubs being closed have senior centers less than a mile away.

“We will make every effort to make sure they have a smooth transition. We will make sure that the new senior center also welcomes them,” DFTA Commissioner Lorraine Cortés Vázquez said, in her first Council testimony as head of the agency.

Koo was concerned that seniors at a club in his district in Flushing, home to a large population of Chinese immigrants, would feel isolated at a new center.

“They don’t speak English, they only socialize with their own people,” Koo said of the immigrant seniors in his District. He said forcing them to share space with seniors outside their community would lead to isolation. “We don’t want to integrate them and then segregate them at the same time.”

In her testimony, Vázquez said that the clubs being closed had serious issues, including “chronic leaks, flooding and sewage backup.” She also said some clubs were not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But some Councilmembers were disturbed that the city chose to close, rather than fix the clubs.

“It looks and feels as though we are throwing them away,” Council member Adrienne Adams said of the city’s seniors. At least one of closing senior centers, NYCHA’s Astoria Houses, was set to undergo $500,000 in renovations prior to the city’s announcement. Members of that center will now be asked to travel to Queensbridge Houses.

The topic of meal funding, one close to the heart of Chair Chin, also came up. Advocates and the Council have sought an increase in funding for meals served at the city’s 249 senior centers. NYC spends 20 percent below the national average on meals for seniors, according to LiveOn NY, and many kitchen staff are woefully underpaid, some making minimum wage.

In 2017*, the Council negotiated $20 million for funding to be permanently added to DFTA’s senior center “model” budget, the internal budget the agency uses to disburse funds. The funds were to be phased in over three years, with $10 million arriving in fiscal year 2018 and $10 million arriving in 2021.

But after this year’s preliminary budget was released, Chin and the Council said that senior centers could not wait until 2021, requesting the last $10 million, which would go to culturally appropriate food and raises for kitchen staff, in 2020. DFTA had commissioned a private study of the senior center meals which was to be completed before money is disbursed, but it was delayed. DFTA says the study is now on track to be completed this Spring, so presumably in the next five weeks.

Meal funding was a prime topic on Wednesday at City Hall, when seniors and staff from centers across the city converged at the City Council to meet with their members and stage a large rally on the front steps of the Hall.

Vàzquez said the study was needed to “determine the funding needed for food purchase and preparation, an adequate level of food service staff, and comparing their salaries to ensure DFTA workers receive fair market rate wages.”

The Council also asked for an additional $11.7 million for food provider contracts, with $7.2 million requested for group meals at senior centers and $4.5 million for home-delivered meals. This request went unfulfilled in the mayor’s executive budget.

In a press release sent out Tuesday night, Chin wrote, “At today’s Aging Hearing on the Executive Budget, we renewed our call to the Administration to fully invest in senior center meals and kitchen salaries. To build a fair city for all ages, we have to stop playing games with senior funding.”

The Council is also pressing for more money to close a waiting list for the Expanded In-Home Service for Elderly Program, EISEP. The service provides caseworkers and caregiver support at sliding-scale fees to elderly people who do not qualify for Medicaid. The program is funded by both the state and city, and New York State estimated an additional $3.9 million in new funding for this program, according to a Council statement, but this number was not included in the city’s Executive Budget. Chin said the $3.9 million from the state was still not enough to close the waitlist and asked for an additional $1.1 million from the city. The EISEP waitlist is currently at about 1100 according to DFTA.

The continued maintenance and repair of senior centers and community centers is another issue. There are 14 NYCHA senior centers and eight senior centers outside NYCHA that don’t have fully functioning air-conditioning, according to the Council. The Council requested $1 million in dedicated funding for these repairs, and the executive budget came through with $4 million for these needs, which will also go to fix roof leaks and other small repairs.

Other funding concerns remain, however, including a long-term funding plan for physical maintenance of senior centers that decreases in the coming years.

The Council and mayor will continue to negotiate the budget until late June, before the next fiscal year begins on July 1st.

Corrections: The original version of this story erroneously reported that the projected savings from the club closures is $885 million, but it’s $885,000, that the “model budget” funding was allocated in 2018 (in fact, it was 2017) and that it was all targeted for food, which we are now informed was not the case.