Deals on Wheels

Bronx Democratic hacks learn to love frozen food for their frail senior citizens

The city's Department for the Aging set a February 17 deadline for senior centers or for-profit firms ("We don't discriminate," said an agency spokesperson) that wanted to apply for the contracts. Since then, the agency has zealously guarded details, acting more like the Homeland Security Department than a bureaucracy that helps the elderly. Spokesperson Andria Cimino said the agency wouldn't say who applied, or how many proposals were received. "That information is considered classified," she said.

In an interview with the Voice, RAIN's Vazquez stuck to that script, but left little doubt that he is pursuing the contract. "They have asked us not to speak about it," he said when questioned about his application. On its merits, however, he allowed that the program has "pluses and minuses."

"On the plus side," said Vazquez, "I think this program could be more efficient in terms of operating meals on wheels. On the minus side," he added, "it is a pilot program and the jury is still out. I think it is underfunded. It may not be enough money."

Money was one area where Bronx Democratic Party regulars said they were able to wring improvements out of the city. The meals were originally pegged at $4 apiece, but Baez and others pushed to have the figure hiked to $5 each. But here, too, RAIN has an advantage. Other Bronx senior centers have complained that, even if they wanted to, they can't compete because their costs are driven by union contracts governing pay for drivers and food prep workers. Vazquez acknowledged that his senior-center employees don't have such contracts. "They never asked to be represented," he said.

But Sefton Rodney, director of organizing for District Council 1707, which represents several other Bronx senior centers, claimed that Vazquez and other RAIN administrators intimidated workers who tried to bring in the union last summer. Rodney said a group of workers who had approached the union for representation reported that Vazquez personally traveled to centers to warn employees against the union.

"Workers told us they felt threatened. This was an ongoing thing," said Rodney. In July, Rodney said Vazquez and the agency's head of personnel held a meeting for workers at the Eastchester Senior Center, where they allegedly cautioned them against the union.

"We never heard from the union," responded Vazquez. "We heard they were going around, but that was all."

Among those working behind the scenes to push the frozen-meals proposal ahead has been Stanley Schlein, the chief election lawyer and longtime adviser to Bronx Democratic leaders. Schlein, a close friend of Bloomberg chief of staff Peter Madonia, who oversees the Department for the Aging, acknowledged that he has advised officials on the matter, but declined to give specifics. "I would be misstating the situation if I said the subject hadn't come up," he said. "They have asked me about it."

Just how seriously City Hall and the Bronx's regular Democrats are taking the frozen-meals issue was demonstrated by their response to councilmembers who questioned the project. Queens councilmember Eric Gioia, who used to deliver senior meals himself, denounced the change at a February press conference at a Sunnyside senior center. After radio station WNYC broadcast his remarks, he received a tongue-lashing from Bloomberg chief of staff Madonia.

"I had a very tense meeting with Madonia the day after that," said Gioia. "He insisted I was wrong on the merits. I have met with the agency's commissioner, but I still have severe reservations about the bill."

The council's newest member from the Bronx, former nurse and union organizer Anabel Palma, also was told she was making a mistake when she had second thoughts after signing on to Provenzano's letter. Palma later asked to have her name removed.

"We made the decision we hadn't done enough outreach to the affected parties—seniors, their centers, and union workers," said Palma's chief of staff, Nathan Smith. "Now that we're reaching out, we have found that seniors are very concerned and worried. We have yet to take a definitive position on this."

After Palma's pullout, however, sources said top Bronx Democrats cautioned her that she didn't want to wind up like her colleague Koppell, who, despite his senior political status, remains a political outcast, with no committee leadership position and no perks from council leaders.

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