Friday, December 12, 2008

Pols Back Seniors in Fight to Save Centers by Ben Hogwood - Queens Chronicle

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In a corner of Jaqueline Eradiri’s office sits a 54-inch Sony Bravia flatscreen television, still in a box.

Seniors chat while waiting for lunch at Ridgewood Older Adult Center, in Ridgewood. The center hopes to win a contract with the city to remain in business next year.
(Photo by Ben Hogwood)

The TV will eventually be paired with a Nintendo Wii gaming system and brought out into the Ridgewood Older Adult Center, where seniors will have the opportunity to go virtual bowling, or play virtual tennis or even shoot virtual zombies.

But Eradiri, the executive director of the senior center, sees it all as a little ridiculous. Fewer than half of the seniors who attend the center know what a Wii is and she doesn’t expect it to get heavy use.

Still, she believes the facility needs the system — as well as the boxed Dell computer towers stacked almost to her office ceiling — just to have a shot at surviving the city’s reorganization of the senior services program.

The Department for the Aging is moving ahead with a plan that some estimate could shutter as many as 89 centers. The DFTA says the centers are underutilized, outdated and do not offer the services today’s seniors are looking for.

In fact, the agency claims that some 44 percent of the city’s 329 centers are chronically underutilized. An average of only 2 percent of the 1.3 million seniors in the city eat a meal at a center on any given day.

Now, the DFTA is preparing for the “longevity revolution.” By 2030, seniors will outnumber school-age children, accounting for one-fifth of the population. The city is in the process of awarding new contracts for the centers through a request for proposals process.

The DFTA wants centers to offer services that today’s seniors would be more interested in, such as walking clubs, blood pressure screenings, exercise classes, and other social activities and intellectual classes.

The RFP outlines the need for two different types of centers: senior hubs and neighborhood centers. The hubs each will have a maximum budget of $1 million and serve at least 200 meals a day and offer six daily health and wellness or art activities. The city will contract with between 15 and 25 of them.

Neighborhood centers will have a maximum budget of $500,000 and must serve 75 meals a day. They must offer three health and wellness and art activities daily. The city will contract with between 225 and 310 of them.

However, the plan is widely opposed, from seniors to center workers to politicians.

A Dec. 4 hearing on the topic brought a standing-room-only crowd to City Hall. Prior to the hearing, seniors marched petitions with 14,000 signatures from their peers to Mayor Michael Bloomberg denouncing the changes.

Bobbie Sachman, the director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services, was ecstatic about the participation from the elderly community. “It was a very empowering day for seniors,” Sachman said. “Given all the opposition ... we believe Mayor Bloomberg should withdraw this RFP.”

Borough President Helen Marshall has been a longtime detractor of the proposal. She gave testimony at the hearing, stating that moving forward with the RFP process would be “totally reckless and irresponsible,” especially during tough economic times, when centers will be heavily relied upon.

The plan, Marshall continued, would eliminate social adult day care programs, elder abuse prevention and many other support services. Also, it wouldn’t fund expenses for building renovations or major long-term equipment purchases, shifting the burden to the nonprofit group operating the centers.

William Thompson Jr., the city’s comptroller, has also attacked the funding plan for the overhaul.

Thompson stated last week that the math doesn’t add up. If centers apply for the maximum amount of money, as is expected, the city would not have enough to contract with more than 239 centers, 89 less than the current 329.

Also, more than $20 million of the $117 million for the contracts reportedly comes from allocations from the council or borough president’s offices, money that may not be available on a consistent basis.

Queens Councilmembers Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) and Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights) both issued statements protesting the proposal. “A society’s moral strength is judged in large part by how it treats its most vulnerable members, and in the case of our seniors, they are also some of our most valuable assets,” Sears said. “We must guarantee that any modernization will not result in a reduction of services.”

Eradiri said she plans to submit a proposal for the Ridgewood location to operate as a neighborhood center. To do so, she would need every penny of the $500,000, which is still less than her current budget. “But it keeps you open,” she said.

This is now the third RFP process the DFTA has gone through in the past year. The first was for case management, which helps older adults “age in place” by remaining in their communities.

The second was for the Home Delivered Meals Program, better known as meals on wheels. The city wanted to cut the number of providers from 98 to 20 in order to minimize cost and improve efficiency.

The Ridgewood center lost out on both contracts and as a result lost some funding for staff positions. Eradiri said the restructuring constantly has her spinning. With plans always changing, she finds herself unable to answer staff questions about what will happen in the near future.

“It makes you look so stupid,” she said. “It makes you feel so insignificant and stupid.”

Charles Weber, 80, comes often to the Ridgewood center and has done so since his wife died 17 years ago. He sits on the board of directors for the center and is fully away of the situation. He is a firm believer that the squeakiest wheel gets the grease.

“If we all squeak, maybe we’ll get some grease,” he said.