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In Forest Hills, pols defend senior centers

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State and city officials assembled in Forest Hills last Thursday to tout legislation designed to save senior centers across the city, but there’s a $25 million catch.

Even though both the state Assembly and state Senate passed budget resolutions last week allocating $25 million in federal money to fund senior centers, that does not mean the centers are in the clear. The funds for the senior centers were taken from money used for child welfare services.

And that money has to be put back somehow.

“Instead of staring at four walls, you’ll have a place to go and see your friends,” Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone) said to a crowd at the Young Israel of Forest Hills Senior League, at 68-07 Burns St., one of 22 Queens senior centers slated to close under the governor’s current budget proposal. “The problem is that we have to find $25 million from another part of the budget.”

The money in question is called Title XX funding, and it comes from the federal government. The money has traditionally been used to fund senior centers, but in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s original budget proposal for this year, the Title XX funding went to youth service programs instead, said state Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), who was not at the rally but also supports senior centers.

So while the dual resolutions ostensibly saved the centers, the lawmakers still have to scrape together more money to fund the youth programs.

“No matter where you shift and restore money, you must show a way to pay for it,” Addabbo said. “You better cut somewhere else or show revenue. The budget has to be balanced.”

Addabbo had several suggestions of where those cuts could come from — like many of the city’s outside contracts, for example.

Both state legislative bodies will eventually meet with representatives from Cuomo’s office to iron out the discrepancies between each party’s budget proposal, and only afterward will the seniors really know if their center will close.

But the centers themselves save money, according to Stavisky.

Speaking to the seniors — who held up signs reading “Do you know what loneliness feels like?” and “Restore Title XX funding” — Stavisky ran through the costs for three different types of care.

Senior centers run the city up to $2,000 a year per senior. Adult day care costs $18,500 and nursing homes cost $123,000.

“Which is more cost effective?” she asked. “And how many of you want to be in a nursing home.”

No one raised their hand.

Carolyn Siino said she comes to the center to socialize and eat a hot meal, since she ran into financial trouble after her sister, the breadwinner of the household, died unexpectedly.

“If they ever close the center, I think I would seek psychiatric help in protest,” she said.

The Forest Hills center is especially dear to the seniors who attend because of the unique way the food is prepared.

It is called glatt kosher, and according to Rabbi Yehuda Loppenheimer, it prescribes more stringent requirements for the Jewish practice of consuming kosher food.

“It is for those who take kosher seriously and at a higher level,” he said. “This is the only place they can go where they can get that food.”

Both Addabbo and Stavisky were optimistic that the money would come through, which is why state Assemblywoman Marge Markey (D-Maspeth) hoped that legislators and the governor would stop threatening the seniors at Maspeth Senior Center with the prospect of closure.

“These seniors are scared,” Markey said. “I’m very confident that we can save the senior centers. It’s more than just hot meals, the workers are very in tune with the residents.”

In addition to the 22 centers, another 5 centers could face closure if Borough President Helen Marshall’s discritionary funding for aging services is cut from the city’s budget as proposed.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Updated 10:53 am, October 12, 2011
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