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December 19, 2013

County cutting hot meals to seniors

By Joe Mahoney The Daily Star
Cooperstown Crier

---- — Anita Cardinale is a 78-year-old retired nurse who had come to look forward to the hot meals delivered to her Springfield home on weekdays.

Now, as the result of a cost-saving move imposed by the Otsego County Board of Representatives, the only meals being brought to her are frozen, and an entire week’s worth arrived bundled together on Monday.

“This is not a good way to treat our elderly people,” Cardinale, retired from Bassett Medical Center, said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m not worried about the freezer space. That’s the least of it. Before, when the meals were brought ever day, people had socialization. That’s not going to happen anymore. We are losing that daily contact.”

A homebound meal recipient who was born when the White House was occupied by President William Howard Taft said she was deeply disappointed that senior citizens were impacted when the county looked for ways to trim spending.

“What will the government do with the money that they save?” asked the woman, who lives north of Cooperstown and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’m glad I’m not a baby being born. I’m glad I’m at the other end. I’m 102 years old and I don’t deserve that.”

County officials said the austerity measure — the switch from hot meals to frozen ones is projected to save $76,000 annually — was first discussed a few months ago. At that time, county department heads were told to cut spending in order to avoid layoffs and prepare for a lean budget for the fiscal year that begins Jan. 1.

In the end, the $125 million budget approved last week reflected both the cut to the senior meals program as well as an increase of $159,000 to cover raises to county department heads. Some of those managers had gone without pay increases for six years, and advocates for the raises argued the county should increase the salaries while it had enough money to do so.

In questioning the change to frozen meals delivered one day a week, Rep. Keith McCarty, R-Springfield told his colleagues that he feared the end to daily stops at the home of recipients would leave elderly residents “very vulnerable.”

“You threw the elderly people under the bus for $76,000,” McCarty said.

His argument proved to be unconvincing, however, as the board voted 13 to 0 in approving the cut, with McCarty abstaining.

The recommendation for the cut came from the county board’s Health and Education Committee, led by Rep. Don Lindberg, R-Worcester.

On Wednesday, Lindberg said he would have never recommended the cut to senior meals had he known that raises for the county’s managerial workers would end up being recommended by County Treasurer Dan Crowell. As recently as early November, Lindberg pointed out, Crowell had said he didn’t think the county could afford raises for those workers.

“We were all told to make cuts and so we did,” Lindberg said. “If we had known they were going to put raises in, we would have never done this. It’s sickening to do this to the elderly.”

Crowell said the idea for the cut originated with Lindberg’s committee, in its conversations with the director of the county’s Office for the Aging, Frances Wright. While the treasurer said he did not know how much money the county would save per meal by switching from hot meals to frozen ones, other officials said the new system would save the county less than $1 for each meal served.

According to a resolution adopted by the county board, the county pays for 31 percent of the funds for its nutrition program, with other courses, such as the state, federal government and donations, picking up the remainder.

The board approved a $768,402 contract for Prestige Services of Clifton Park to run the elderly meals program — including both delivered meals and those served at congregate sites.

Wright said frozen meals were first introduced in the county to more remote regions a couple of years ago because of regulations that hot meals must be delivered within two hours after they leave the kitchen.

“When we looked at the contract for this year, we looked at different options, and the least-expensive option was to go to all frozen,” she said.

The number of participants in the program runs from between 280 and 300, she said.

While some have complained about the frozen food, she said satisfaction surveys suggest many people “like the flexibility of having choice” when they have a variety of dinners from which to select.

As for any safety concerns that might arise as the result of the seniors no longer having regular contact with a meal delivery person, she said her office makes daily well-check calls to those homes to make sure there are no problems.

While the mandate that hot meals be delivered within two hours has presented challenges, Nancy Dingee, the director of the Office for the Aging in Schoharie County, said her county has no plans to switch to frozen meals for seniors, and there are no plans to slash spending for the program.

“Our county feels that anyone who is eligible should receive a hot meal,” Dingee said when reached at her office in the village of Schoharie.”We get a lot of support for this program from our county legislature.”