Senior Center Rally This Afternoon; Criteria for Closures Questioned

The University Settlement's Senior Center, at 189 Allen Street.

This afternoon, members of the City Council and community activists will gather on the steps of City Hall to protest the Department of Aging’s decision to close 105 senior centers. The city says it has no choice — since Governor Cuomo has decided to divert $25 million in federal funds from senior services to child welfare programs.  Six centers on the Lower East Side are threatened with closure, the most of any neighborhood.

In the past several days, care providers have been questioning the criteria used in deciding which centers to close. News reports last week noted, “the department decided to cut each community district by 30 percent. Any senior center that served less than 85 meals per day was selected for slashing.”

Yesterday afternoon, we talked with Christopher Miller, Department of Aging spokesperson.  He said the total budget in each community district is, in fact, being cut by 30%.  The goal in closing centers, he added, is to “have the least impact on seniors we can have.”  This means, targeting the smallest facilities. Miller said the department figured out which centers were smallest by looking at the numbers of meals they were contracted to serve. He indicated, however, that there was no firm cut-off number.

In addition to meals served, the department also zeroed in on centers with “chronic facility issues.”  As an example, he suggested a center located in a basement that frequently flooded would fall into this category. Miller said they did not look at utilization rates. In other words, the analysis did not take into account whether a center is half full — or at 100% capacity.

Brenda Tong, who runs the Smith Houses Senior Center (Hamilton Madison House), believes the evaluation by the Department of Aging was flawed. For one thing, she said, it’s unfair to look only at how many meals each center was contracted to serve. In reality, her center (one of those on the closure list) typically serves more seniors than the contract specifies. Tong also said using the meal program in the analysis, while ignoring all of the other services the centers provide, makes little sense.

District 1 City Councilmember Margaret Chin will take part in today’s rally. Earlier this week, she was part of a delegation that went to Albany to meet with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver about slashed funding to senior centers and other social programs. Silver, who represents the Lower east Side, has spoken out against the proposed cuts. In his leadership role he is, however, at the center of defending a wide range of imperiled government programs in intensive negotiations with Governor Cuomo.  So from Silver’s perspective, the senior center issue is part of a much larger battle.