Hundreds rallied on the steps of the county's newly refurbished legislative building in Mineola, Feb. 19, to send County Executive Tom Suozzi a strong message: Don't turn your back on Nassau County's youth.
Parents and children and staff members and supporters of numerous youth service agencies across Nassau demanded that the county reinstate $4 million in funding to ensure these agencies continue serving close to 60,000 youth and their families annually. The $4 million represents 0.2 percent of Nassau County's total $2.5 billion budget.
Earlier this month, several agencies received termination notices while others were hit with major funding cuts, some as much as 75 percent. These agencies receive funding from the county's Department of Health and Human Services.
"If these cuts go through, lives will be lost," Peter Levy, president of the Coalition of Nassau County Youth Services Agencies, Inc., said. "The county has asked us to lobby on its behalf. We've agreed to help them but right now they have to help us."
For nearly 40 years, community youth organizations across the county have provided services to Nassau's youth. In 1996, 30 of those groups formed The Coalition of Nassau County Youth Services Agencies, Inc. with one goal in mind: Help those youth and their families who may be struggling with a wide range of issues.
Levy said slashing funds would negatively impact the lives and future of children. Vital programs will be forced to close immediately and hundreds of jobs will be lost. Levy anticipates even more layoffs in the coming months as more programs close their doors.
"Kids won't know where to turn to," he said.
Suozzi, who was visiting Disney World at the time of the rally, told Anton Community Newspapers cutting programs is the last thing he wants to do. "I am hoping that our state legislators in Albany help us out and it doesn't come to this," he said.
While delivering an "emergency budget address" to the legislature earlier this month, Suozzi outlined a plan to close an unexpected budget gap estimated to be as high as $150 million.
To offset the financial shortfall, Suozzi proposed a 7 percent countywide salary reduction to stave off massive layoffs, drastic cuts in services and the shutdown of county parks and other facilities. "Things are as bad as they can be," he admitted Feb. 2, as he reached out to Washington, Albany and Nassau's labor unions to stop the bleeding.
Suozzi also called for an increase in federal Medicaid assistance and millions of dollars in state legislative items through a tax on cigarette purchases, revenue from red light cameras and an increase in surcharge on traffic and other vehicular violations. If the state does not authorize the county to install red light cameras, increase fees on traffic tickets and impose a tax on cigarettes, a home heating fuel tax and $12 million in program cuts must be imposed.
"These cuts are totally outrageous," Legislator John Ciotti, who attended the Feb. 19 rally, said. Ciotti said Elmont's Gateway Youth Outreach (GYO) program serves 800 families with various after-school programs, providing homework assistance and even snacks for those who may not have access to such at home. "These programs keep kids off the streets and protected," he added.
Hicksville's Boys and Girls Club will be forced to operate with an $80,000 funding cut. Tom Bruno, the club's executive director, said the cuts are really going to hurt the program. "My agency is very dependent on government money," he said.
The club's county funding was slashed by 50 percent. In addition to county funding, the club receives state funds as well, including grants. Last year, the organization received $39,000 in grant monies that Bruno doesn't know for sure he'll see next year. "We're not sure as far as the state goes," Bruno said. "That budget has not been finalized yet." He's calling on the Hicksville community to help keep the program alive.
Nicole Napoli, a teenager from Massapequa, credited youth service programs for getting her where she is today. She graduated from high school and currently works two jobs.
"I was a very determined young girl with an enviable dream but was oblivious to the right direction. My experiences with several programs were and still are benefiting me," Napoli said. "These programs helped me realize the fantasy world I was living in and prepared me for the real world."
Napoli believes youth services are a necessity in today's society. Without them, she admits she would be in jail. "A source of inspiration to move the heart and soul will bring out the best in all of us. That inspiration comes from these programs."
Ten years ago supporters gathered several blocks from the legislative steps to fight the same fight. "They didn't restore enough but restored money to stay open," Levy said. "This time it's real different."
Levy urged rallygoers to reach out to officials in Albany and Washington for help and to attend the Feb. 23 meeting of the county legislature.
Before the cuts, Nassau County boasted more than 40 youth service agencies, offering hundreds of programs to address such issues as suicide prevention, homelessness, runaways, drug addiction, gangs, employment, family crisis, eating disorders, anger management, sexual abuse, physical abuse, teen pregnancy and many more.
"The logic behind funding these agencies is easy to follow," Levy said. "It is estimated that every child who drops out of school becomes a $1.5 million burden on the social services system with entitlements over their lifetime. It is clear that the funds spent on these programs today pay for themselves many times over in the years to come."
Numerous organizations attended the rally, including the Economic Opportunity Commission of Nassau County, North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, Roosevelt/Freeport Economic Opportunity Commission (EOC), the Glen Cove Youth Bureau, the Long Island Advocacy Center, Concerned Citizens for Roslyn Youth Inc., Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Glen Cove Boys and Girls Club, YES Community Counseling Center in Massapequa, Mineola Youth and Family Services, the Hicksville Boys and Girls Club, the Long Island Crisis Center, the Port Washington Community Action Council, Elmont's Gateway Youth Organization, the 5 Towns Community Center, Freeport Pride, the Manhasset/Great Neck EOC and the Rockville Centre Hispanic Brotherhood, the Hempstead Hispanic Counseling Center, the Community Wellness Council of the Bellmores/Merricks Youth Sports Consortium and the Hempstead Hispanic Advocates Association.