There's not much that can disrupt a bingo game at the Lillian Wald senior center on the Lower East Side. But nothing takes the spin off bingo balls like the bad news that their senior center is on a list to be closed.
"That's bad!" said Margarita Perez, a wheelchair bound senior citizen who says she visits the center for the healthy meals.
NBCNewYork has learned the NYC Department for the Aging's plan predicts closing between 40 and 81 centers, depending on how deeply Albany cuts the City's budget. The plan would save between 6 and 12 million dollars, according to sources. The State Assembly and Senate budget plans would restore at least some of the Governor's proposed cuts. But the state budget is unresolved and a week late.
"It's a heartbreak," said DFTA Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, in an interview with NBCNewYork. "Nobody wants to do this, but the fact is we are in a new world and a new economy."
Paoli says she studied all 51 community districts to see which areas could afford to lose a senior center. The Lower East Side, for instance, has 14 senior centers, while some other needy neighborhoods only have two or three. In compiling a list of centers to close, Paoli considered only part time centers or those that serve fewer than 50 meals a day.
She said plans are in the works to offer transportation so that seniors who lose their centers would be able to get to another senior center.
Still, seniors tend to get very attached to their centers. "I'm not gonna go to another one," said Maurice Wilkominsky, as he dug into his plate of stuffed shells. Dorothy Miller said "I feel bad that they're talking about closing it. I come here five days a week."
Betsy Jacobson who runs the Lillian Wald center says "many of these seniors will face isolation. They won't be eating a nutritious meal and they'll get sicker quicker."
Mercedes Esquerette who's recovering from open heart surgery said she'd feel it not only in her heart and stomach but in her pocket. "I live on social security," she said. Esquerette said she sometimes struggles to afford the $1.50 per meal contribution requested but not required by the center.
Sources tell NBCNewYork that their recent research shows seniors who visit senior centers are older and needier than city officials realized.
Part of the problem, according to Paoli, is that unlike other city agencies that get lots of federal funding, the Dept. for the Aging does not. So, with the city facing steep cuts in state dollars, agencies like DFTA can face a disproportionate hit.
"Every dollar I give is competing with a cop that you need in the street, garbage you need to pick up and a fire that needs to be put out so it's a very stiff competition."
The picture will become clearer in the next few weeks if a state budget is adopted. Until then Mayor Bloomberg has instructed his commissioners to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.