Senior services nonprofits demand accountability from New York City

A June 21 New York City Council hearing discussed how to improve contracts with nonprofit senior services providers.
A June 21 New York City Council hearing discussed how to improve contracts with nonprofit senior services providers.
Zach Williams

Senior services nonprofits demand accountability from New York City

Human services providers feel left out of DFTA’s model budgeting process.
June 26, 2018

Nonprofit service providers say they weren’t sufficiently engaged in the New York City Department for the Aging’s model budgeting process for senior centers – and it shows.

“When the model budget was in the works, we waited. When months went by, we waited. By March, we figured, this is going to be really good,” said Jonah Gensler, associate executive director of community services with Sunnyside Community Services, a Queens-based nonprofit that runs the Center for Active Older Adults.

“We were underwhelmed.”

DFTA Commissioner Donna Corrado and Deputy Commissioner Michael Bosnick and Deputy Assistant Commissioner Alexandra “Sasha” Fishman, discussed their agency’s model budget for senior centers at a hearing before the New York City Council’s Committee on Aging on June 21. The model budgeting process, which a number of city agencies were engaged in, was conceived to help address underfunding of human services contracts but is still falling short of meeting the needs of nonprofit organziations, according to the Human Services Advancement Strategy Group.

At the hearing, Corrado said DFTA worked with the city’s Office of Management and Budget to produce a model budget that would help to achieve an equitable distribution of funds among the 249 senior centers it supports – and consequently improve service delivery.

She said her agency used input from its network of senior centers and other stakeholders to analyze existing line-item budgets, identify factors that contribute to effective programming and then design a model budget. Her staff then compared the centers’ current budgets to the model budget in order to find and address shortfalls using  $10 million baselined in the city’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget.

Nonprofit human services providers who worked with the Administration for Children’s Services during its model budgeting process spoke at a related council hearing at a related council hearing that same day about participating in focus groups and otherwise being actively engaged. But nonprofits who contracted with the DFTA said they felt left out and were disappointed with the way additional funds were distributed.

“I was thinking that from this additional money, Open Door would get some. Not a lot, but some,” said Po Ling Ng, director of senior services with the Chinese-American Planning Council which runs the Open Door Senior Citizen Center on the Lower East Side. “Unfortunately, we cannot get even one dime. All of our seniors are very disappointed. We are very disappointed.”

DFTA representatives said some senior centers did not receive any additional funding because they were deemed to already be at, or above, the model budget amount.

“It was not clear – and remains unclear, why each provider received the amount of funding they did,” Douglas said. “This lack of transparency led to deep dissatisfaction with how DFTA chose to target model budget funds with limited flexibility for providers.”

The exclusion of food costs was also particularly contentious. Senior meal reimbursement rates are already 20 percent below the national average, according to testimony from Andrea Cianfrani, director of public policy with LiveOn NY, a support and advocacy organization for older adults. And more than half the seniors who eat at centers say those meals are 50 percent of their daily food intake. 

Sunnyside Community Services’ Center for Active Older Adults wanted to use additional funds it was provided through the model budgeting process to help cover food costs by supporting salaries for their cooks – but were told they could not. Their cooks serve over 200 people a day with only volunteer help and limited resources.

“We asked for an explanation,” said Gensler. “We didn’t get that.”

City Councilwoman Margaret  Chin, chair of the committee on aging, asked Corrado why food costs were overlooked. Corrado explained that the model budget was focused on program and staff costs.

“Food costs are a separate exercise,” she said.

The response did little to placate frustrated providers. “This is not a model budget for senior centers, but instead targeted contract enhancements for senior centers,” said Kevin Douglas, co-director of policy and advocacy for United Neighborhood Houses, a membership organization of some 39 settlement houses and community centers in New York City that reach about 750,000 residents.

DFTA has committed to baseline an additional $10 million for the effort by Fiscal Year 2021. Advocates have requested those funds be available by Fiscal Year 2020. But some providers are primarily concerned that the money is well spent.

“We did not advocate for more increased funding for model budget, because the process was convoluted and we did not feel that it addressed the chronic issues,” said Michelle Jackson, deputy director and general counsel with the Human Services Council, a network of human services nonprofits with a membership of some 170 organizations.

Back at Sunnyside Community Services’ senior center, Gensler said that after some additional negotiating, he was eventually able to move additional funds into the positions of cook and assistant cook to help cover food-related costs. 

But that doesn’t help other providers.

“Making a deal on the side is not the way to do business,” Gensler said. 

David Gentile
David Gentile
is an editorial intern for New York Nonprofit Media.