For senior citizens and their advocates, this Valentine’s Day was more about activism than chocolate and flowers. They flooded the phone lines of their local legislators to tell them that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget is simply not acceptable.
“On Valentine’s Day we were asking the legislators to have a heart,” says Bonnie Lumagui, director of the Co-op Village NORC, which provides social and health services for senior citizens in a cluster of Lower East Side co-ops. “We are trying to get the word out any way we can.”
The word is that Cuomo's $152.3 billion budget proposal is a blow to the 16 New York City NORCs, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, which provide various services for elderly residents who wish to grow old in their own apartments. “Right now NORCs are getting roughly $4 million,” says Lumagui. “That isn’t even enough to fund the current projects in existence. Now the governor wants to cut $700,000 from the NORC budget. Such a massive cut will result in the closure of at least four NORCs.”
According to the population data provided by Cornell University, New York State is home to the third-largest elderly population in the nation. Currently there are more than 2.8 million New Yorkers over the age of 65, and that number is expected to grow to over 3 million by 2020 and to almost 3.5 million by 2025.
“For the first time ever, 20 percent of New York State residents are age 60 or older,” says Nora Moran, a policy analyst at United Neighborhood Houses (UNH), an advocacy group for 37 settlement houses and community organizations in the city. “This is the time to invest in programs like NORCs. It’s an incredibly effective model. NORCs promote independence and engage older people before a crisis happens, to avoid nursing homes and hospitals.”
As Lumagui sees it, that model is under siege. “The proposed budget cuts would be catastrophic,” she says. “The final budget contracts will get awarded in May or late June. Until then we have to make sure that the assembly will tell the governor to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new budget, because cutting NORCs is not option.”
Last year, New York State passed laws that modernized the NORC program, which focused on increasing program quality, collecting more data on the effectiveness of NORCs, and allowing expansion across the state. “NORC programs really pushed for these reforms,” says UNH’s Moran. “We knew that these changes were needed to start more NORCs across the state. Unfortunately, Gov. Cuomo’s current budget only planned to support 24 NORCs, though there are currently 29 NORCs in New York State receiving state support. Without more funds, we could see existing NORCs close, and no expansion to underserved older communities that need these services.”
State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Democrat whose district includes the Brooklyn waterfront and lower Manhattan, is all geared up to fight. "Budget cuts that force NORCs to close would leave New York's seniors out in the cold,” he says. “NORCs provide critical housing and services to seniors across the state, and I'm working with colleagues and advocates to ensure the budget protects them."
Mike Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, doesn’t know how many calls came in on Valentine’s Day, but he says volume was heavy. “We got a whole bunch of calls, but there is still hope,” he says. “We are fighting it. We don't think cutting senior programs is a good thing.”