Holding signs begging County Executive Thomas Gulotta, "Don't balance your budget on the backs of our families," demonstrators gathered on the steps of the Supreme Court Building last Thursday to protest the county executive's proposal to cut funding to human services by 50 percent.
The rally was held in response to an announcement by Gulotta that as a first step in eliminating the shortfall in the county budget for the fiscal year 2000 he was directing all departments to cut overall spending in discretionary contracts by 50 percent. The county departments most affected by this proposal include the Youth Board, Mental Health and Welfare Council and the Department of Drug and Alcohol Addiction. Senior Citizen services and Day Care were not included in these cuts. The overall human service cuts are expected to reduce the budget shortfall by $9.8 million.
"These dollars are funding worthwhile programs, but the county simply cannot afford to do everything for everyone," said Gulotta in a press release announcing the proposal. "These are necessary cuts that will be implemented to insure Nassau County's fiscal recovery."
Jack O'Connell, of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, led last week's rally, noting that it was the last thing he wanted to be doing the week before Christmas. "A lot of political skullduggery and a lot of bad government have brought a lot of folks here to talk about a lot of stupidity that has brought us to the point that we need to talk about kids who are trying to make it in life and families who need assistance in helping their loved ones with mental health and substance abuse services," said O'Connell. He went on to introduce speakers from a few of the organizations that would be affected by the proposed cuts.
Jamie Bogenshutz, executive director of YES Community Counseling Center in Massapequa spoke about the cost effectiveness of the county's youth services system and how those services impact and save lives. She stated, "While we live in one of the richest counties in the country, somehow our county executive has lost sight of one of our greatest treasures- our children and their families." According to Bogenshutz, for the past three decades the Youth Services system has remained one of the most cost effective networks in government, keeping the per child cost as low as $0.31 per day or $112 per year as opposed to the over $70,000 per child cost of custodial care.
The programs Bogenshutz spoke about included those that protect runaway and homeless children and provide shelter, those that prevent and intervene during times of conflict, programs that assist children who have been physically beaten or sexually abused, programs that assist their parents to communicate when they do not possess skills, and programs that provide direction and support in times of crisis and employment and mentoring for youth. "These are programs that offer after school leisure time activities- not bats and balls, but places that provide safety; away from the guns, knives, drugs, gangs and violence that pervade their homes and their lives," said Bogenshutz.
Executive Director of the Coalition on Child Abuse and Neglect, located in Garden City, Cynthia Cavallo, labeled Gulotta's cuts in discretionary contracts "shortsighted and unconscionable." She added that ultimately budget cutting hurts everybody because it will add to the county's fiscal burden as more needy people turn to the county for services previously supplied by these nonprofit agencies. "Also, it could mean the loss of nearly $70 million in federal and state shares that match county funds," added Cavallo.
Gladys Serrano, executive director of the Hispanic Counseling Center noted that as the only bilingual, bicultural agency in Nassau County, their service was necessary for the families who go to the center. She said that many of the children who go to the center go for help with academic tasks because their parents are unable to help them while others go because their parents are working two jobs and the children are left unsupervised. She asked that human services, such as those provided by the Hispanic Counseling Center, not be taken for granted.
Richard Dina, president and CEO of Family and Children's Association, based in Mineola, noted that his agency was facing the loss of up to $2 million with these cuts. He said, "That means that our three shelters for runaway kids and homeless youth, of whom there are 800 we served last year, will be in question. Next year our mental health clinic, that sees 600 people a month, with all kinds of difficulties and who is now charged to enforce Kendra's Law, which means to work with people who have severe problems, is going to be more difficult to do. We have programs in the community that work with the Youth Board in order to develop our young people in communities where the educational systems are weak. All of that is up for grabs."
A girl who benefits from the services currently funded by the county spoke to those at the rally about why these agencies are so vital to others like her. "They are places for kids to go to, for people to talk to other people for help. Children with drug abuse, runaways, if there was nowhere to go, where would we go? Would there be a place for us to stay? Who would we talk to? If there was no one around we would still be on the streets .. we'd still be in the same situations we were in ... The counseling services that we have help us, help us grow, help us relieve our problems, help us think and realize what life is really about. That's why we need them and they shouldn't cut it."
Following the rally, Minority Leader Judy Jacobs, who as of Jan. 1 will become the Presiding Officer of the Nassau County Legislature when the Democrats become the majority, implored the county executive to consider a solution that would buy time for these human service agencies, many of whom may have to close their doors if they don't have contracts in place by Jan. 1. "As of Jan. 1, these agencies will likely find themselves unable to borrow against their anticipated contract monies, since it will be unclear what monies they can expect," stated Jacobs in a letter to the County Executive's Acting Budget Director William Marshall. At Monday's legislative session, Democrats asked Marshall to consider adopting short-term contracts with existing agencies so that they will not be forced out of business.
"I am gravely concerned as to the financial implications of these cuts, both in terms of the agencies' ability to provide services and the ability of the county to seek reimbursement from the state and federal authorities," said Jacobs. "We must also take a look at the human impact such cuts could have on our communities."
Legislator Peter Schmitt, who is currently the deputy presiding officer of the legislature and as of Jan. 1 will become the minority leader, has also asked the county executive to consider these same solutions. He noted that he is pushing to get at least short-term contracts for these agencies from the various departments so the nonprofit agencies can keep operating. "I have been pressing the department heads to renew the contracts, even though the dollar amount is not yet determined, because I know how dependent the agencies are on the money so that when it is decided that an agency like YES, for example, if they are supposed to get $100 and right now Gulotta's talking about giving $50, everybody seems to agree that they're going to get something so process the contracts, so that when it is determined that they are really going to get $60 or $80, that the bureaucrats don't turn around and say, 'Well, now it is going to take four months to process the contract.'"
Schmitt noted that he would like the county executive to consider taking a more direct leadership role and identify the agencies that are providing the most complete services. He said that while some communities have many agencies servicing them, there are other instances where one agency services several communities and are more vital to those communities. "Why cut every agency 50 percent and put them all out of business? Why don't you cut half the agencies in the county 100 percent and leave the other half alone. The end result is the same fiscally but you are not killing everything," said Schmitt.
According to Schmitt it is the county executive who has the final say in how much is cut from what agencies and the legislature has no power over that determination. "We passed the budget. We have provided the money in the budget for these agencies but we cannot force the county executive. The charter is specific that the county executive must negotiate the contracts. We cannot force him to enter into a contract with these agencies."