Meals and Deals

Hail to the county leader

Last week's press release announcing contract awards in a new city program to provide frozen meals to the homebound elderly in the Bronx paid honor where honor was due. Two of the three contracts from the city's Department for the Aging went to a giant social services agency called RAIN, which has close ties to the Bronx County Democratic organization, headed by Assemblyman José Rivera. RAIN—short for Regional Aid for Interim Needs—was the only organization to welcome the idea of giving seniors a weekly stack of frozen meals instead of daily hot ones.

After RAIN began pursuing the contracts, most Bronx pols, who had vocally opposed the switch when first announced by the Bloomberg administration, either fell silent or endorsed the plan. All but two members of the Bronx's council delegation backed the idea in a letter to Council Speaker Gifford Miller.

Appropriately, the April 20 press release by commissioner Edwin Méndez-Santiago thanked the two Bronx council members, Madeline Provenzano and Maria Baez, who led the charge in favor of the program. In a remarkably candid disclosure, the release also thanked "Assemblyman and county leader José Rivera." Why was Rivera, a state official, singled out for thanks? And why was he referred to as "county leader"? An agency press spokesperson thought long and hard, and then responded, "Because he is a leader of his county."

In fact, the Bronx Democratic county leader played hardball with anyone who dared oppose the party on the frozen meals plan. RAIN has long been a source of jobs and campaign contributions for the Democrats, with RAIN executive director Louis Vazquez and his family donating over $8,000 to Bronx Democratic campaigns since 2000. Vazquez is married to Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, who served as chief of staff to former county leader Roberto Ramirez. She now heads the Hispanic Federation, a citywide nonprofit group that funnels funds to other organizations, including RAIN.

In addition to politics, RAIN had another edge in winning the meals-on-wheels contracts: its nonunion status. RAIN, which last summer beat back a push by District Council 1707 of AFSCME to organize its workers, bid $5 per meal for the contract. In contrast, Aging in America, a group whose employees are represented by Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, lost out after it bid $5.97 per meal due to its higher pay scale.

"We are obviously upset about the rejection of our proposal," said Linda Martin of Aging in America. "We are frankly a little bewildered about the department's selection criteria."

City officials say they will provide placement assistance to the estimated 60 workers who will lose their jobs as a result of the shift to frozen dinners.

But that won't cut it, say leaders of SEIU, the state's most powerful union. "We are going to continue to raise our objections to these contracts with the comptroller and the mayor's office," said Jennifer Cunningham, head of SEIU's statewide council. "I can't understand how we can build a stadium on the West Side but we have to give homebound seniors frozen meals."

 
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