New London seniors brace for permanent cuts as budget vote nears
New London — City seniors this week are making a final plea for restoration of two Senior Citizens Center positions they claim are badly needed but eliminated in the city’s proposed budget.
The roughly $87,000 left out of the mayor’s proposed $92.8 million budget for fiscal year 2018-19 covered the salaries of bus driver Rikki Woodward and administrative assistant Penny Braun.
Karen Paul, chairwoman of the New London Senior Affairs Commission, said the impact to seniors will be dramatic and she has appealed to the City Council for restoration of the funds.
Braun, one of two assistants, is an integral part of the senior center family and the go-to person for information and coordination of events there, Paul said. Some question how the center will operate without her.
Woodward is one of two bus drivers who combined perform more than 80 rides a week for seniors, including to and from medical appointments, shopping trips and transportation to and from the senior center for special events, lunches or exercise classes. The rides are limited to New London and Waterford.
It’s a quality-of-life issue for a group of people that have paid their fair share of taxes and supported the city for most of their lives, Paul said. It’s also the only source of recreation and socialization for some.
“Many of these seniors rely on these services for needed door-to-door pickups and drop-offs,” Paul said. “Seniors living on fixed incomes cannot afford to spend their money on alternate transportation for the quality-of-life programs.”
On Wednesday, as seniors gathered for lunch and a visit from a ventriloquist during the quarterly membership meeting, the budget cuts were a hot topic in the main gathering area. Some of the seniors, like Greta Edwards, took to writing letters to the City Council to make their case.
Edwards, in her letter, said she depends on the service to get to the senior center and shopping trips to Walmart, Shop Rite and Stop & Shop.
“Coming to the senior center is a source of recreation — getting out of the house, socializing with other members, joining in organized programs,” Edwards wrote.
Paul said an example of why two drivers are needed occurred just this week when one driver was out due to a death in the family and their other missed days for a medical procedure. Five different activities were canceled, rescheduled or eliminated as a result, she said.
Senior Center Coordinator Marina Vracevic said senior services in many towns are feeling the pinch as municipalities tighten their belts to avoid tax increases.
“It’s not their fault, it’s the budget climate we’re in,” she said.
Vracevic acknowledged that elimination of one driver could lead to an increase in costs for some seniors.
But there are also alternatives for transportation for medical appointments that include a ride service provided through the Eastern Connecticut Transportation Consortium, which subcontracts rides for the elderly and disabled in New London County and Westerly.
The towns of Bozrah, East Lyme, Griswold, Groton, Ledyard, Lisbon, New London, North Stonington, Stonington, Preston and Waterford collaborate with the state Department of Transportation to provide the service. The money provided by the state is based on what the municipalities budget for their own transportation services, said Groton Senior Center Director Mary Jo Riley.
The state also provides a statewide medical ride service for people on Medicaid.
Senior centers in surrounding towns provide a mix of services for their own residents. The Rose City Senior Center in Norwich offers two buses, along with an escort car for medical appointments. Waterford has four part-time drivers and one substitute driver, and operates two buses daily.
Groton employees six part-time drivers and has four buses: three 12-passenger buses and one 22-passenger bus.
Woodward, a longtime school bus driver with 26 years of experience and who has worked for the city for four and a half years, is just months away from earning a pension from the city. She was driving a shuttle at Mohegan Sun when she saw the job opening in New London.
“It’s a great job, I love my seniors,” Woodward said. “It’s a very personal service. We know which ones need the extra help or need their groceries carried to the door.”
Paul planned to make another appeal to the City Council’s Finance Committee on Thursday evening. A final vote on the city budget could come as early as Tuesday.
City Council President Anthony Nolan, chairman of the Finance Committee, said he and others have spent the last few weeks seeking ways to restore what they consider vital programs and positions, including summer programs and lifeguards provided by the Recreation Department.
He said he would like to see money shifted to save at least one of the senior center positions. He believes that Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein has worked out a schedule to help maintain a scaled-back busing schedule with the least amount of impact.
“I would just hate to see them lose both positions. My goal is to try and restore one of them,” Nolan said.
The senior center positions are among a number of personnel cuts included in the proposed budget. The cuts include loss of the administrative assistant for the one-person fire marshal’s office and a senior engineer in the Public Works Department.
Nolan said councilors also are seeking ways to fund another police officer in addition to the one included in the budget.
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