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Budget Ax Threatens Home Away From Home for Low-Income Senior Citizens


LA PUENTE — The cake was perfect. White with orange icing, paper-wrapped taffy on top.

Florence Duran, 76, won the $3.99 cake in a raffle at the Bassett senior citizens center. Just in time for her brother's 84th birthday in four days. Maybe she'd gussy the cake up with some candles or buy a few more pieces of taffy to spell out "84."

Never mind that the cake's expiration date was six days ago.

The cake made her day. The senior citizens center made her day. The only thing that made her mad that day was the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

County supervisors are facing political dynamite--a budget gap of at least $273 million. So the fate of Bassett County Park and the senior center are in limbo until supervisors vote on what to cut from the parks budget. Tuesday, supervisors adopted a tentative budget that will be discussed in a series of community hearings around the county. A final budget is expected to be adopted in August.

The rage and woe is palpable at the 7-year-old senior citizens center, a place with little political clout. No one there has the standing of Sheriff Sherman Block, who railed about possible jail closures, or Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who warned that some crimes would go unprosecuted under a worst-case state budget.

But there are people like Florence Duran, who says that closing her senior citizens center--for an annual savings of $40,662--would mean that she has no place to go for a $1.25 hot lunch, no place to go for raffles, bingo or cut-rate groceries.

Duran eats lunch every weekday at the center with nearly 150 other low-income residents of the East San Gabriel Valley. These are people with no cushy nest eggs--the average annual income of center regulars is $5,000, said Georgia Tabizon, 69, the center's elected president.

On a recent afternoon, Duran clutched her plastic cake box on her way out of the center. Earlier, she and her 76-year-old husband, a retired custodian, had carted out two bulging paper grocery sacks--$1 a bag--to the car. The haul included potatoes, lettuce, bread and chicken noodle soup.

She said she can't believe the center might close.

"I think it's terrible," said Duran, a stout, matronly woman, smoothing a reporter's hair as she talked. "They should start thinking of seniors."

This is a place where the silverware is plastic, the flowers are fake and the floor is scuffed linoleum. The fixings aren't fancy, but neither are the people. Old-fashioned courtesies prevail: Women putter around the center's kitchen, and men help women carry grocery bags to their cars.

No one is saying that the Bassett center should stay open while other, more essential county services are cut. But the deeper issue here is respect, said Mary Ellen Toomey, 63, a retired waitress who eats at the Bassett center every week. She shoved a packet of Italian dressing across the lunch table so a friend could take it home for later.

"Thing of it is," said Toomey, a native of Ohio, "kids today don't give a damn about senior citizens. We were raised where you respected someone even a year older than you."

The problem for county officials is that they are facing their worst budget crisis, largely because of Gov. Pete Wilson's plan to shift $2.6 billion in property tax revenue from local governments to schools.

Under one budget scenario, 72 county parks would have closed, including Bassett. Under a revised scenario, Bassett is not among the 23 parks targeted for closure, but county officials said that hit list is likely to expand.

"You have to look at the big picture," said Robert Alaniz, spokesman for Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district covers Bassett. "Do we want to close correctional facilities? Do we want to release prisoners before their time is up? Do you want a longer response time to sheriff's calls, 911 calls? You weigh that against recreational programs or senior citizens programs."

Nationwide, local governments are boarding up senior citizens centers or combining their programs with others to save money, said Larry White, a lobbyist for the American Assn. of Retired Persons in Washington. He had no statistics on how many of the country's 15,000 senior centers are facing closure or cutbacks.

"AARP believes the 'greedy geezer' notion has gotten far more play and makes people a lot less sympathetic toward protecting seniors," White said. "There's the mythical stereotype that seniors are doing well. That everyone's in their golden years on the golf course in Florida."

There is no golf course at 10-acre Bassett park, which is across from a drive-in movie theater, near houses with overgrown lawns and bars on the windows. Push-cart vendors sell flavored shaved ice in the parking lot, which is enclosed by a graffiti-covered chain-link fence.

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