Major budget pressures piled atop worries by older New Yorkers and elected officials about possible seniors' services reductions led some City Council members to pronounce a senior center restructuring "dead on arrival" before a hearing last week.

A far-reaching request for proposals planned by the Department for the Aging (DFTA) to advance its ongoing modernization effort found little traction with members of Council's Subcommittee on Senior Centers on Dec. 4. The RFP, which aims both to increase use of senior centers and likely decrease the total number of centers, would be taken up by all 329 senior centers now in the DFTA network. New York City's senior population is growing, and DFTA leaders say the 1.3 million residents over 60 aren't anywhere near fully utilizing centers at present.

(For more on the plan overall, see Serving City Residents When They're Grayer, City Limits Weekly #638, May 5, 2008.)

Tasked with explaining DFTA's approach was Deputy Commissioner Caryn Resnick, with the assistance of Special Counsel Monica Parikh. Commissioner Edwin Méndez-Santiago was not present for the hearing, and his absence was roundly criticized by councilmembers who argued that the import of the issues merited his presence.

Resnick said DFTA is considering consolidating programming – in 225 to 310 centers, according to agency figures – because at present, “an abundance of care” is being used by only two percent of those qualifying (i.e., those over 60). Later she said there are “deficiencies in the current system" that new guidelines and designs would address. The agency already has begun revamping its meal delivery and case management; the proposed "hub and neighborhood" system is another step in the makeover of service delivery.

Bronx Councilman James Vacca, who chairs the Senior Centers subcommittee, maintained that DFTA's usage estimates are artificially low, because they are drawn from a daily lunch count that excludes those who rely on centers for services other than food. The usage percentage is so low, he said, precisely because DFTA hasn’t developed a better count in all its years of oversight. He cited the actual percentage at something closer to 20 percent usage.

Vacca also spoke in favor of a new bill that would require 60 days' prior notification before any DFTA-funded senior center can close. Other members also voiced support, but Resnick’s responded that the bill was “not needed,” as procedures already are in place for a 30-day notification before a closure.

But Council's greatest concern seemed to be the economic feasibility of the restructuring DFTA seeks – now carrying a $117 million pricetag, up from the $94 million originally projected. Speaker Christine Quinn called the changes and increased expenditure for creating the new “hub centers” a dangerous excess in the current economic environment. Manhattan Councilman Robert Jackson pointed out that in order to cover the increased cost of the larger hub centers and meet the broad programmatic requirements for activities, the current plan includes $16.3 million in discretionary funds to be allocated to DFTA by the borough presidents and councilmembers, which would not necessarily be available on a consistent basis. While Resnick argued that these funds were in essence “already baselined” for their upcoming operations and thus placed in the budget appropriately, Comptroller William Thompson also has said he's concerned about this.

And the proposed changes have met increasing resistance from senior citizens themselves, who hand-delivered 13,000 signed letters against the proposed changes.

Given the numerous questions surrounding funding and the sweeping changes DFTA has settled upon for the RFP, the likelihood of its acceptance in its current state is slim. Bronx Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who chairs the Committee on Aging, suggested near the end of the hearing that a smaller, pilot rollout of the RFP’s new ideas in a limited number of centers may be more successful.

- Casey Samulski