Boro senior centers fear cuts as budget crisis looms

By Alex Christodoulides

As the clock ticks down to the city Department for the Aging's deadline for a request for proposals for senior citizen centers in Queens, the directors of these organizations are getting nervous about how they will manage in the future with money tight and the mayor's office proposing a 3 percent budget cut.

City Councilmen James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) and Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) met last week in Fresh Meadows with the administrators of 10 senior centers from throughout the borough to hear their concerns about the DFTA's modernization plans and learn how best to help them.

The Pomonok Senior Center, housed in a New York City Housing Authority facility in Flushing, is being squeezed on two sides and the elderly population it serves is afraid that soon there may not be a center to visit, said the center's director, Angela King.

“The fact we're facing cuts on the DFTA side and on the NYCHA side, they're worried we're going to get cut,” King said.

The DFTA's modernization plans focus on revamping its Meals on Wheels program to serve frozen meals several times a week instead of daily delivery of hot food, a restructuring of case management services and an increasing emphasis on wellness, where centers will provide health screenings and light exercise.

Handling the needs of two very different populations — younger seniors and the very elderly — while providing services to both and adapting to fit the DFTA's vision has some administrators shaking their heads.

“They're trying to do this way too fast, and a lot of seniors will get lost in the shuffle,” said Erin Brennan, director of SelfHelp Senior Services. “The oldest, frailest seniors will lose out. I'm trying to juggle the baby boomers, and I've got people in their 90s.”

Between budget cuts and the rising cost of gas and food, many centers find there is less and less money left to operate the centers, several administrators said.

“They have to be realistic about what we can provide with the limited amount of funding they give,” Brennan said.

“We know how to provide case management as a service, but with the request for proposals, there are so many unknowns,” said Mara Schechter, director of JASA, which operates seven centers throughout the borough. “The contract is for six years, but how can we lock in a six-year budget when in 2002 gas was $1.35 a gallon and now it's $4 or $5?”

“When you take money from 'other than personal services,' plus the 3 percent cuts, it's more like 15 percent,” said Lester Szymanski of Catholic Charities. “A greater percentage of the budget goes to maintaining services.”

Gennaro and Comrie proposed that the centers organize seniors to undertake a postcard campaign designed to force other City Council members, especially those planning to run for mayor in 2009, such as City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan), to take a stand on the DFTA's three-pronged modernization effort.

“We've been trying to talk to Christine Quinn. She's looking to run for mayor and seniors vote,” Comrie said. “We need to get organized. Candidates need to know it's important.”