New York Times: At Least 50 of City's Senior Centers Expected to Close to Save Money
By David W. Chen
Published April 30, 2010
Convinced that the deteriorating budget situation in Albany leaves it no other choice, the Bloomberg administration plans to close as many as a quarter of the city’s more than 300 senior centers by July 1, with Manhattan being hardest hit.
Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the commissioner of the Department for the Aging, said in an interview on Thursday that 50 senior centers would definitely be closed — selected largely on the basis of three criteria: the fewest meals served, the fewest hours open and the most maintenance or management problems. She also said another 25 centers would be notified soon that they could be closed on July 1 if the city received less money from Albany than it currently anticipates.
Ms. Barrios-Paoli declined to identify the 50 centers, saying only that Manhattan would potentially lose a dozen, because it already had the greatest concentration of centers, and that Staten Island, since it had the fewest centers, would lose less than five.
“I’m trying to depoliticize this, because I want people to feel this was a fair process,” she said. “What we tried to do was make sure no borough was unduly penalized, and we tried to be as sensitive as possible.”
People briefed on the plan, though, said that the areas that were most likely to be affected included Harlem and the Lower East Side.
Ms. Barrios-Paoli is now waiting for final approval from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — who generally cedes decision-making authority to leaders of city agencies — perhaps as soon as next week. Her goal, she said, was to send letters to the senior centers on May 15, “to give them at least 30 days to get ready to close.”
The decision illustrates how the quagmire in Albany — the state budget is now a month late, with no action foreseeable — is already taking a toll on core city services. But the closures carry significant political risk for Mr. Bloomberg, since seniors are a powerful and vocal constituency, and the centers, which provide meals, programs and companionship, are mandatory campaign stops for all candidates.
Advocates for seniors, bracing for the worst, urged the administration to exercise caution.
“I think it’s premature to begin the process of closing senior centers because of Albany’s problems, because we don’t know the ending yet,” said Bobbie Sackman, director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services, which represents 200 nonprofit agencies. “You can’t reopen a center once it’s closed.”
City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, the chairwoman of the Committee on Aging, bemoaned the emotional toll from the potential loss of so many senior centers.
“It’s not just about a meal,” she said. “These centers are second homes to isolated seniors. Many of these seniors sit at the same table, with the same friends, and there’s a lasting bond that develops that can’t be measured.”
Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, questioned the motives of the administration, noting that Mr. Bloomberg tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to overhaul the city’s senior centers two years ago with a proposal to streamline operations and evaluate centers based on performance measures.
The Bloomberg administration plan to be unveiled in the coming days aims to close 32 centers that serve fewer than 30 meals a day; the citywide average is 90. Of those 32, Ms. Barrios-Paoli said, 13 are now operating part-time — meaning that they are open less than five days a week, or are open less than five hours a day. Another seven part-time senior centers serving more than 30 meals will also be closed, as will another 11 plagued by substandard facilities or poor management, based on the city’s assessment of their performance.
Ms. Barrios-Paoli said she considered geography (so seniors would not have that far to travel to find another center) and religion (she spared a few kosher senior centers that might otherwise have been closed). As an example, she said she would not close the senior centers on City Island and Roosevelt Island, because of their locations.
She also said that the city would provide shuttle service to transport people affected by closures to other nearby senior centers. Still, she acknowledged that the closures would be a shock: never have so many centers been scheduled to close at one time.
“It’s painful to do, but it’s something that may rejuvenate the system,” Ms. Barrios-Paoli said.
The city’s decision stems in large part from Gov. David A. Paterson’s proposal to alter an arcane budget formula that would redirect $25 million in federal money traditionally reserved for senior centers toward state programs to combat domestic violence and elder abuse. The governor’s proposal would slash financing for the city’s senior centers by nearly 30 percent.
And Ms. Barrios-Paoli said that since she had already made other budget cuts, she did not want to cut the budget for services for the neediest seniors (like home-delivered meals). She said that the senior centers — which cost about $100,000 each a year to operate — were the only option.
“I don’t want to minimize the need, but they are mobile, and they have more of a support network,” Ms. Barrios-Paoli said about the 30,000 New Yorkers who visit senior centers each day.
Even though no one knows which centers are slated to be closed, some people who use them have already begun to express anxiety.
At the Drew Hamilton Community Services Center in Harlem, several people described the meals and services there as lifelines and said they hoped that the center would remain open. Others, though, were more cynical.
“This is expected, excuse me for saying,” said Julia Smith, who worked as a paraprofessional at the city’s Board of Education. “I’m 80 years old, and I’ve seen how money works in this community. The first thing they do is target senior citizen centers. Ever since Bloomberg was re-elected, we have heard rumors about this place closing."