On the ground: Elderly concerned about budget cuts

Even before Mayor John DeStefano Jr. finished explaining the New Haven budget to his audience at a town hall meeting Wednesday night, 85-year-old Harry Conroy stood up in anger to take his turn.

“I haven’t heard anything about the elderly,” he said forcefully. The mayor, he said, is not addressing the plight of the seniors. Amid scattered cries of, “Sit down, Harold,” from the audience, Conroy declaimed, “Come on, this is free speech … . What’s the matter with you people? Haven’t you got any guts out there?”

Held at St. Bernadette’s Church on Townsend Avenue in the East Shore neighborhood, the first of the mayor’s three town-hall budget meetings drew over 50 elderly attendees, many of them visibly upset with impending cuts in elderly services. In DeStefano’s proposed 2009-’10 budget, elderly residents of New Haven face a 28.1 percent overall budget cut for the Department of Elderly Services, department layoffs and the closure of three of the city’s six senior centers.

“The people are here because they are upset with the senior centers’ closing. We’re afraid we might be next on the list,” said Tina Doyle, a retiree in her 70s.

Multiple attendees, including Ward 18 Alderwoman Arlene Depino, also said they were also distraught about the fate of their senior center’s longtime director, who was recently let go.

The mayor staunchly defended his budget, which maintains a 0-percent increase in citizens’ property taxes at the expense of several key city departments.

“I could have funded those positions — and then every one of you would have had a significant tax increase,” DeStefano asserted. “Do we make choices about every area of government? We do. We closed an 850-square-foot [senior center] at Bella Vista, but we continue to provide the same services.”

As in previous weeks, he placed blame squarely at the feet of New Haven’s labor unions, most of which refused the mayor’s request to modify their members’ contracts to save the city a total of $10 million.

Clasping his hands to his heart, Destefano said, “If the union had agreed to concessions … you know how many people would have gotten laid off? Zero.”

The mayor’s budget presentation was holistic, but he was careful to tailor it to his elderly audience. Beginning his talk with anecdotes about particular audience members whom he knew as a boy, he tried to maintain a serious but relaxed mood throughout, skipping over the most detailed slides in his presentation and highlighting what the city was already doing for the elderly.

Two years ago, he noted, there had been a freeze in the increase of property taxes for senior citizens over the age of 70 with household incomes under $50,000; seniors who made more could defer increased property tax payments to a later date. He also pointed out that other city departments, such as Parks, Recreation and Trees, face deep budget cuts.

Some senior attendees were satisfied with the mayor’s explanation: “Right now I have no major issues,” resident Rose DeMatteo said. “The mayor will make concessions.”

But the Rev. George DeRosa, a 72-year-old street minister, said DeStefano, at 53 years old, simply could not understand the plight of the elderly. He tried to explain Conroy’s worry. “[Seniors] need friends; they need somebody.” He added that without senior centers, retirees have no place to go.

The next town hall meeting will be held the evening of April 1 at the Edgewood School.

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