By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
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.
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 partiesseniors, 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.