As hundreds of protesters gathered at the county building in Mineola last week to protest cuts to social service agencies, a plan put forth by County Executive Thomas Gulotta to restore funds continued to sit idle in the State Legislature.
Meanwhile, the process continues today, Wednesday, Jan. 26, at 10 a.m., when the County Legislature holds a public hearing to discuss the cuts and possible avenues for funding for the organizations.
Gulotta is asking the state to pass legislation which would allow Nassau County to delay payment for train station maintenance to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority from this Sept. 1 to Jan. 1, 2001. Gulotta would have 50 percent of the $19.2 million be used to restore funding to about 100 private agencies which had their county funding cut in the 2000 budget. The rest of the money would be used to restore part of the $7 million cut from the MTA Long Island Bus subsidy.
The plan was met with some mockery by County Comptroller Fred Parola, who called it "meaningless, because all it does is defer payment." The cuts were initially made to help close a budget deficit which is expected to far exceed the original figure of $60 million. Parola said the cuts, while painful, were the only significant move made to close the gap. He applauded Gulotta's political response to pressure but said, "the bottom line is he's still avoiding the castor oil."
The MTA opposes the plan and the bill has not yet been introduced in the State Assembly. The State Senate passed the bill last session but it would have to be reintroduced this year. As of press time there was no Assembly sponsor for the Senate bill, which was proposed by Rockville Centre's Sen. Dean Skelos, a Republican.
Assemblywoman Maureen O'Connell (R-Mineola) said she would favor the bill if it ever came onto the floor.
"Ultimately, if we don't provide these services, these kids will consume more resources in the future," O'Connell said of the drug and alcohol, mental health and youth services which were affected by the cuts. "This particularly has an impact on the Mineola community, with Mineola Youth and Family Services. They're doing good work and we certainly need to maintain funding for that facility."
O'Connell's sentiments were amplified by the hundreds of residents, including service providers and the people who benefit from the programs, who braved the cold last Wednesday. However, few, if any, put much stock in Gulotta's MTA plan.
"That's something he brought up a few weeks ago, and it requires the attention of the State Legislature, and we don't know if and when that will happen," said Jack O'Connell, executive director of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island. "We need something done now."
Several members of the County Legislature ¬ both Republican and Democrat ¬ voiced their support to the protestors' cause, saying they were working on a solution to the budget crisis which will include restoration of funds for the service agencies. Some also got caught up in the moment.
"Don't let this be the last time I see any one of you," said a blustering Legislator Robert Corbin (D-Westbury) to the throng. "In order to get anything done in government, you have to come out in a peaceful matter and protest. Tie it up. Tie the government up. Don't let them proceed."
Republican Minority Leader Peter Schmidt addressed the crowd and took Gulotta to task for making cuts he called "too broad, too deep and too swift."
The rally, organized by a coalition of the service groups to bring attention to their plight, included several impassioned speeches about the benefit such organizations bring to their communities. Most of these groups had their county funding cut by 50 percent, while some organzations were cut altogether.
Gulotta, who was said to be visiting family in Florida during the rally, issued a statement last week which drew attention to the need for tough decisions to close the budget deficit. In a letter he wrote to Presiding Officer Judy Jacobs, Gulotta said, "I share with you and the representatives of the agencies the frustration caused by the necessity to cut government spending in order to maintain a balanced budget. Since 75 percent of the county's budget is mandated, we are limited to balancing the budget within the 25 percent that is discretionary."
The logic of that message was met with a logic shared by the service providers and supporters at the rally: "We did not cause this budget crisis, so why should we have to carry the burden of the budget cuts?"
To date, cuts made to the 2000 budget have included the contracts with the social service agencies, followed by the $7 million to the MTA Long Island Bus subsidy, and $4 million in over-the-cap overtime. An additional $20 million is expected to be saved through a proposed payroll lag and another $20 million gained through the recent county settlement with the Long Island Power Authority. Gulotta has also recently named an independent fiscal management firm ¬ Public Financial Management, Inc. of New York City ¬ to monitor the county's revenues and expenditures and recommend spending cuts and ways to make government more efficient.
In spite of these fiscal realities, the Legislature and County Executive are as much in tune with the political and social ramifications of cutting funds to agencies whose services are designed to save money in the long run.
The programs which stand to close include mental health outpatient services, after school programs, summer camp, teen leadership, gang prevention, pre-K, literacy, violence prevention, youth shelters, court child care, crisis hotlines, tutoring, summer recreational and youth at night programs.
According to a survey by the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, five agencies will be forced to close their doors within the next three months, more than 6,000 families will lose services each month, and more than 250 people will lose their jobs in these agencies.
"These cuts have impacted on hundreds of agencies, slashing the safety net for some 6,000 families in Nassau who absolutely depend on these services to survive," said Richard Dina, assistant director of Mineola Youth and Family Services, which serves between 250 and 300 families. "These people are so grateful that they're able to come to a place that offers free services. They couldn't even afford two or three dollars for counseling because we're often talking about single-parent families on a fixed income. Whatever is done to restore the cuts, it's got to be soon."