New York City’s borough presidents today ripped the city council for slashing desperately needed funds for seniors during a pandemic when they are at their most vulnerable.
The five borough presidents –– Gale A. Brewer of Manhattan, Eric Adams of Brooklyn, Ruben Diaz Jr. of the Bronx, James Oddo of Staten Island and Acting Borough President Sharon Lee of Queens –– came together in a virtual press conference to condemn the cutbacks which come during a citywide belt tightening because of a $9 billion shortfall caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
They called on the council to restore funding to programs that they said are vital to senior citizens and increasingly important because of the pandemic, they said. Seniors are more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications and many who are staying home so they don’t contract the virus are relying on senior centers and their programs for basic necessities like food and medicine, they said.
According to a recent report from Center for an Urban Future, as of March 2019, 1.2 million New York City residents were over the age of 65, and the aging population has grown by 237,000 people in the past decade.
Additionally, according to the city’s Department of Health, 17,153 by the most recent count – of the city’s 23,201 confirmed and probable deaths from COVID-19 are people aged 65 and older.
“To say it’s a travesty is not even beginning to describe the impact,” Brewer said about the cuts.
The steep reductions were made to senior services through the Executive Budget and through the Citywide Savings Program. There was also a 12% decrease to Council Senior Services Initiatives from last year. The Borough President’s Discretionary DFTA Funding, which totals to more than $1 million and is part of the Council Senior Services Initiatives, was zeroed out.
“It’s not lost on anyone in this room that we’re going to have to do much more with less in fiscal 21 but not to this degree on the backs of our elders should we shoulder this pain,” said Lee. “And by we, I mean our seniors, our elders.”
The council’s cuts to senior services caught them off guard and the negotiation process lacked communication and transparency, the borough presidents said.
“We had no ability to negotiate, we had no ability to discuss what was being cut,” Brewer said.
The other borough presidents echoed her point noting that a few of them had worked in the city council and were familiar with the budget negotiation process.
“I don’t remember a budget process that lacked a level of communication to this degree,” said Oddo.
Much of the focus during this year’s passionate negotiations, which went right up until the deadline and delayed the vote by hours, was on how to respond to protesters’ demands to decrease the NYPD’s budget by $1 billion and reassign it to agencies that work with vulnerable communities in the city.
One of the big coups was the restoration of funding to the Youth Summer Employment Program which had been nixed entirely in a previous spending plan.
Diaz said he wanted to believe that the decrease in funding was an oversight but that if it wasn’t then it was “ the most egregious example of hypocrisy when it comes to this budget.”
“We’ve all been saying that post pandemic, that we are going to be prioritizing all of the social economic sectors and silos so that we can be better off in the future so that those communities can be better off in the future,” said Diaz. “No community has been most vulnerable and hit the hardest than our senior population.”
The Department for the Aging has always been under funded but the new cuts were but the new cuts were particularly dire, said Katelyn Andrews, the Director of Public Policy at LiveOn NY an organization that advocates for policies that benefit seniors and agencies that serve them.
“Key funding that services need really should not have been at risk,” she said. “Not last year, next year, but especially not during a pandemic.”
Adams said that the spending plan for the Department of the Aging and the lack of communication around the cuts sends the wrong message to struggling seniors.
“When you look at the DFTA budget, we basically tell our seniors you have to fend for themselves,” he said.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s office and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’s office were contacted late in the day and weren’t able to get back to Queens County Politics in time for this story.