By Joyce Miles
Niagara Gazette — A Niagara Falls community leader is denouncing a proposal by the county Office for the Aging to reduce, rather than eliminate, senior citizen dining days at St. John A.M.E. Church. On behalf of the Highland area, St. John's pastor Bruce D. Points Sr. challenged Niagara County lawmakers this week, asking them to rethink the wisdom of balancing a budget "on the backs of people who can't fight back." Points addressed the Legislature on Tuesday, during a public hearing on the proposed 2013 county budget. He later said his comments were aimed at the Republican-led majority caucus, whose members mostly represent areas of the county outside Niagara Falls. Under pressure to cut his department's spending, Office for the Aging Director Ken Genewick earlier this year proposed closing 3 of 22 "congregate" dining sites, places where senior citizens gather for meals and organized social activities, countywide, for savings of $48,000. All three sites on Aging's hit list were in or near Niagara Falls — St. John's A.M.E. Church, Tuscarora Nation House on the reservation and the Summit View apartments in Wheatfield — and were among the least-frequented of congregate dining sites countywide, according to department statistics. As they also all were geographically close to other county-run dining sites, Genewick tried pitched the closings as site "mergers," suggesting the folks who'd been dining at St. John's and the other places need only pick another site and OFA, which provides van transport for senior diners who don't drive, would help them get there. After considerable negative feedback from members of the targeted sites, and lobbying by Points on behalf of St. John's, Genewick backed away from site closings. Instead he proposed reducing, to three from five, the number of days per week that the three sites are open. Each site's "on" and "off" days would be staggered and the Aging van would be available to take members to the next-closest site on their site's off days, he said. Congregate dining days would be Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Tuscarora Nation House; Monday, Thursday and Friday at Summit View apartments; and Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday at St. John's church. Partial service is as raw a deal for elderly residents as no service at all, Points said bluntly. Aging's offer to transport elders wherever they want to go — outside their Highland community — isn't generous, "it's disrespectful. "This is their home. (The church site) is more than just a place, " Points said. "It's not just numbers, it's about community and the loss of social fabric. They know once it starts, it's eventually all going to go away. ... And we have to wonder, if (Aging) is willing to move people around, why not bring some people (from other sites) into our community?" Points suggested Genewick is focused on numbers at the expense of Aging's mission, serving the elderly. That's neither fair nor true, Genewick responded. The objective of "restructuring" the congregate dining program was to cut its overall cost without cutting services for seniors; and he believes Aging's no-fee transportation offer accomplishes that. Moreover, he said, he and Points have been in active talks recently about "expanding" Aging's presence in the Highland area, through St. John's. In addition to arranging nutrition services for groups and homebound elderly, Aging helps seniors get hooked up with home heating, in-home nursing care, low-cost prescription drug and other assistance programs. The gist of talks is a cooperative office-church effort at getting more area seniors aware and availing themselves of services, he said. Those talks notwithstanding, Points said he'll continuing pressing the county to keep the St. John's dining site open five days a week. Aging has asked St. John's to waive rent for its use of the church, and Points said that's not likely unless five-day service is part of the bargain. According to Genewick, Aging pays $2,431 annual rent to five of the 22 congregate dining sites around the county; the rest, including the Tuscarora Nation and Summit View sites, are rent-free. After his site-closing plan was shot down, he said, he sent letters to the five property owners asking them to waive rent "in light of our financial situation." The three-day-a-week plan for the St. John's, Tuscarora and Summit View sites is written into the county budget. If the legislature OK's it with budget approval, the plan will take effect Jan. 1, Genewick said.