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Seniors balk at Qns. Botanical Garden user fees

The Queens Botanical Garden has announced it is shaking up its gardening offerings and charging higher fees in response to funding cuts and the evolving needs of its users, but some longtime participants say the changes are unfair to seniors.

The financially troubled institution has elected to transform its senior garden club, after four decades of existence as a space for senior citizens to have garden plots, into a $150-per-plot family garden program over the next year, in hopes of providing a place for Queens residents of all ages to enjoy gardening at QBG, said its executive director, Susan Lacerte.

“We came to the conclusion that it needs to be a gardening program of the Queens Botanical Garden rather than a club. And that’s what’s gotten some people angry,” Lacerte said. “We’ve also had a lot of interest from other people who wanted to learn to garden, so we thought, ‘Let’s try to broaden this out and meet some different social needs and do intergenerational gardening, perhaps.’”

Joseph Siegel, 78, a member of the club who has tended a plot in the garden for more than a decade, says he supports providing opportunities to younger generations as long as seniors get first dibs on their long-held turf. But the Forest Hills resident balked at the increased fees members will face, and says seniors built the senior garden and they are now being forced to pay for the fruits of their own hard work.

“They say they don’t want to get rid of us, but in order to have other people some of us have to leave. It’s very insulting. They’re getting over $200 from what amounts to zero cost to them,” Siegel said. “They claim that they subsidize us — if that claim is accurate, they should show the bills that were paid for by the QBG for us. I bet it doesn’t come ´╗┐close to what we’re paying.”

The city announced plans to slash its funding for the QBG by $83,000 last week, two people were laid off there in December, and every full-time employee is being forced to take a furlough this year, Lacerte said. As a result, having a plot in the new family garden will cost users $150 per year, plus the $50 annual membership fee and $5 a day for parking. For seniors the membership fee is $45 plus $1 per day for parking. Seniors can have their plot price reduced to $50 if they agree to volunteer for´╗┐ four hours per week for several months.

Lacerte said she feels the pain of seniors who are being asked to contribute more this year, but says the garden has to cut costs and focus more on maintaining the entire grounds and providing educational services open to schoolchildren and the public.

“You can’t do as much. We have a 39-acre garden, 16,000 schoolchildren coming in ... and you have to give priority,” Lacerte said. “We’re asking everyone for help, and it doesn’t matter what your age is.”

But that does not assuage Siegel, who still feels his beloved senior garden is being taken advantage of.

“We will die at the end of this year,” he said.

For more information about the family garden or to request a plot, call Rebecca Wolf at 718-886-3800, Ext. 230.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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