By Anna Merlan
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By Tessa Stuart
Cutting senior citizens' programs is normally akin to stepping on the third rail for politicians. Seniors vote, pols know, and you mess with them at your peril. But a Bloomberg administration plan to drastically alter the way elderly shut-ins receive meals at home has won an odd but decidedly powerful ally: the Bronx Democratic political machine.
The Bloomberg plan calls for a pilot program in the Bronx that would substitute a stack of weekly frozen meals for the hot plates now delivered daily to thousands of elderly people. Last year, Department for the Aging commissioner Edwin Mendez-Santiago announced the effort as a way to save funds and reach more seniors. City officials made no secret that if the effort is successful, they plan to replicate the program citywide, a move that would create a newand potentially profitableindustry. Days after the plan was announced, private frozen-food vendors from as far away as Mississippi and Louisiana descended on senior centers, pushing their products.
Closer to home, the frozen-meals notion, however, was met with loud Bronx cheers.
Not only does the existing program provide a hot, nutritious meal to homebound seniors, responded directors of senior centers and their political representatives, it also serves as a daily watchdog, monitoring the health and well-being of the city's frail elderly. Moreover, seniors often rely on the simple human contact provided by a daily delivery person.
"Some of our seniors don't have microwaves; some don't even use ovens. And there are going to be some who will eat three of the meals in one day. What do you do then?" asked Bob Altman, who directs the meals program for Moshulu Montefiore Community Center in the Bronx.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion told a November hearing of the City Council's Committee on Aging, chaired by Bronx councilmember Maria Baez. "I cannot stand by without warning the administration of the serious impact this plan would have on the Bronx's senior population," said Carrion.
Baez voiced concerns that the proposal, which cuts the number of providers from 17 to three, would cost jobs at senior centers that lost contracts. Joel Rivera, whose dad, Assemblyman Jose Rivera, chairs the Bronx Democratic Committee, said the administration was "cutting costs at the expense of quality and nutrition."
But that was then.
In recent weeks, Bronx pols have been furiously backpedaling on the issue. When Oliver Koppell, the former state attorney general who now represents the Bronx's Riverdale in the City Council, introduced a resolution opposing the plan, he got 24 fellow members to sign on to the billbut not a single one from the Bronx. Instead, the borough's seven other members signed their own memo, a letter to Council Speaker Gifford Miller in which they repudiated Koppell's bill and threw their weight behind the frozen-meals project.
"We are confident that this program will benefit all participating seniors and will provide an opportunity for more seniors to be serviced with home delivered meals," said the March 9 letter, which was authored by Madeline Provenzano, chairwoman of the Bronx delegation.
Carrion went silent on the matter, with his office failing to respond to repeated requests for his current position. Even Miller, who owes his speakership post to the support of Bronx and Queens county Democratic leaders (and who is seeking support for his bid in next year's mayoral contest), became tongue-tied when the Voice asked his press office for his stance on the issue.
What changed? Advocates for seniors and other councilmembers trace the sharp reversal to the decision by a powerhouse not-for-profit organization, one that has long supplied the Bronx Democratic machine with political donations and jobs, to break ranks with other senior citizen centers and apply for the contract.
The organization, called RAIN, for Regional Agency for Interim Needs, has expanded dramatically in recent years. It has 1,200 employees and an annual budget of about $33 million. It also operates five of the 17 senior centers in the Bronx now providing meals-on-wheels feeding programs, and was the only nonprofit agency that didn't react in horror to the idea of unloading a pile of icy Swanson-style dinners on its fragile clients and hoping for the best.
The group is headed by Louis Vazquez, who, along with his family, has contributed more than $8,000 to the campaigns of Bronx Democratic regulars since 2000. Vazquez is married to Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, the former chief of staff to former Bronx Democratic Party boss Roberto Ramirez. She also worked for the city's Department for the Aging for more than a decade, according to the Norwood News, a muckraking local Bronx paper that has questioned the meals proposal.
RAIN's board includes several politically connected Bronx figures, most notably Luis Miranda, a top political consultant who is business partners with Ramirez and whose companies have provided campaign services to Baez, Carrion, and former borough president and once-and-future mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer.
There are other links. Councilmember Provenzano, the author of the letter in support of the frozen-meals contracts, knows RAIN well. Until his recent retirement, her husband, Donald Simmons, was the director of one of RAIN's largest senior centers, at Eastchester in the north Bronx. Neither Provenzano nor Simmons responded to messages.