Holding signs that read: “Manhasset/Great Neck EOC Hagedorn Community Center 600 Children’s Families Served;” “Shut Down Community Centers…U Shut Down Dreams;” and “Don’t Step on Our Dreams” Manhasset was represented at the rally.
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.
Stephanie Chenault, executive director of the Manhasset/Great Neck EOC, expressed strong opinions about the proposed cuts. "Many of our young people come from single parent families that depend on their local community center and after school program to provide care, homework assistance, and support for their children while they're at work.
Many of the youth programs countywide work with teens who, without their support, would become part of the juvenile justice system. Youth programs everywhere are working hard to fill in the gaps and provide much needed support to families impacted by the economic crisis.
To terminate youth contracts and leave all of these children, youth and families without services is truly unconscionable."
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.
Manhasset/Great Neck EOC executive director Chenault commented on those proposed revenue streams. "While no one opposes this legislation and we all understand the need for additional revenue in Nassau County, it is unfortunate that the children and youth of the county are caught in the middle." Elaborating further Chenault noted, "Programs that received letters terminating their contracts with the county were also notified that they, and their constituents, should be advocating for passage of three pieces of state legislation (red light cameras, cigarette tax, and a traffic & parking violations reform bill) that would bring money into the county and, theoretically, restore funding for programs whose contracts terminate on March 31."
"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.
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, the Manhasset/Great Neck EOC, 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 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.
Pat Grace contributed to this article.