Thursday, November 20, 2008

Loss in casino revenues in Atlantic City threatening services for people with disabilities, elderly people

From The Press of Atlantic City in NJ:

ATLANTIC CITY - Dotty Cullen, a longtime advocate for senior citizens and disabled veterans, has been in a wheelchair since a massive stroke 10 years ago paralyzed her left side.

She depends on a Cumberland County transportation service subsidized by casino revenue for rides to her doctor and therapy sessions. Without those rides, the hardships would be unimaginable for the 82-year-old Vineland resident.

But a downturn in Atlantic City's casino industry has cut into funding for state programs benefiting elderly and disabled people, leaving Cullen worried that her transportation lifeline may be threatened.

"This is very important not just to me, but to many people out there who live with a disability," Cullen said.

Other speakers expressed similar fears during a public hearing Wednesday on the state Casino Revenue Fund, which peaked at $502.3 million in fiscal 2006, but has declined the last two years because of the weak economy and other misfortunes affecting the gaming industry. For fiscal 2008, the fund was $413 million.

The New Jersey Casino Revenue Fund Advisory Commission is holding three public hearings throughout the state to discuss the challenges of lower revenue and make sure that critical programs aren't underfunded.

New Jersey has an 8 percent tax on casino revenue to finance prescription drug subsidies, transportation services, the Meals on Wheels program, housing assistance and other aid for elderly and disabled people.

Most of the casino fund, about $216 million, goes to support the Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled program, or PAAD. People eligible for the PAAD program may purchase their medications for only $5, regardless of the cost of the medicine. About 200,000 senior citizens and disabled people benefit from the program.

Believing the PAAD program is strong enough, the advisory commission supports proposed legislation to redistribute more money in the Casino Revenue Fund to financially stressed programs, such as transportation services. Bills pending in the Legislature would increase the fund's spending formula for transportation from 7.5 percent to 8.5 percent.

State Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., R-Union, Morris, Somerset, Essex, and Assemblyman Vincent J. Polistina, R-Atlantic, both members of the Casino Revenue Fund Advisory Commission, said they support those bills. Polistina also wants to explore the possibility of shifting Casino Revenue Fund money that has recently gone to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority back into the fund. The CRDA is a state development agency primarily funded by a separate 1.25 percent tax on Atlantic City gaming revenue.

"I think we need to go back to the basic premise of the Casino Revenue Fund - that is, to help the senior citizens and disabled people in this state," Polistina said. "I'm trying to find out how the CRDA has spent the money from that fund. We need to make sure the money is spent appropriately."

Polistina, Kean and other members of the advisory commission listened while about 20 speakers, most of them from groups representing senior citizens and disabled people, called for funding increases that are "desperately needed." This was the first time the commission has held a public hearing on the Casino Revenue Fund. A second one is scheduled Friday in Trenton and a third Dec. 9 in Hackensack.

Kim Hemple-Miletta, director of the Edgar Joyce Senior Center in Upper Deerfield Township, Cumberland County, said transportation programs financed by the casino fund help the elderly avoid becoming shut-ins.

"Transportation is really, really needed so they can keep their dignity and self-respect and still be self-reliant," she said.

Linda Loveland, of Alloway Township, Salem County, described in vivid detail the difficulties of caring for her 28-year-old son, Jamie Smith, who was born without the use of his arms and legs.

"I literally have been taking care of him since the day he was born," Loveland said. "I still have to toilet him. I still have to feed him."

Despite his disabilities, Loveland's son attends college in Gloucester County. However, Loveland must drive him to his classes because the public paratransit service won't cross the border from Salem to Gloucester County. Loveland appealed for expanded casino-subsidized transportation to help ease her family's burden.