If announced Countywide budget cuts are implemented, the Port Counseling Center will be forced to close its doors on the roughly one hundred people in need of alcohol and drug treatment it helps every year. Littig House will have to drop a very successful reading program, a Literacy Peers program, and rely primarily on volunteers to run an after-school program. And many of the Port Washington Youth Council's Teen Center programs and activities will be in jeopardy as well.
These scenarios will become certainties when proposed cuts made by Nassau County Departments, acting on orders from County Executive Thomas Gulotta, are carried out. Trying to reduce the county's budget deficit, Mr. Gulotta indicated in a Dec. 14 written statement to one of the agencies affected that "The Budget Office has asked that all departments reduce discretionary funding...(and) since approximately 70 percent of Nassau County's budget is mandated by either state or federal law, the areas to cut spending are confined to a very limited portion of the County's budget." Human service agencies -- like mental health services, youth services, and drug and alcohol agencies -- have been particularly hard-hit.
These budget cuts "will decimate Port Washington services," said Aggie Lasetchuk, Executive Director of Port Counseling Center, adding, "many agencies will have to close, because they cannot operate on 50 percent." The Port Counseling Center, which provides community-based alcohol and drug treatment services, is primarily funded by the NYS Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services through a block grant received by the Nassau County Department of Drug and Alcohol. The Counseling Center found out a scant two weeks ago that their budget would be cut in half, and the other half of their funding, intended for treatment, would be used, instead, to reduce the county's budget shortfall. This action spells disaster for the center; closing this agency, which would have celebrated 30 years of service in June, is likely. With only half their funding, "We would not be able to have counselors," said Ms. Lasetchuk and her board concluded that they could not remain open. If the Center must close, Ms. Lasetchuk is fearful for her clients. "Many of our clients are mandated by the criminal justice system, so without the center, these clients will go back to criminal activity, or end up in jail, which will cost the taxpayer more money than would treatment," she explained. "And what will happen to the kids?" she asked.
Ms. Lasetchuk's concerns are echoed by others in Port, like Lynette Batts, Director of Littig House. She, too, is reeling from the sudden news that her budget would be cut 40 percent. "What programs am I going to have to abandon because I have no staff?" said Ms. Batts, adding that just having to ask herself this question was painful. At this time, it appears that her successful reading program cannot be continued; nor will she be able to put her literacy peer educators to work. The afterschool program, which serves 70 children, will be severely understaffed. Due to the cutbacks, Ms. Batts said Littig House has lost one part-time special education teacher; the other part-time teacher, fortunately, has agreed to accept a pay cut. Littig House's Youth Council program, which identifies and trains young leaders for community work including violence prevention, no longer has any staff to run it. Likewise the educational workshops for children offered by LI museums and the Public Library: their future is precarious. As for the solid homework assistance given to young people, which included developing computer skills, Ms. Batts said sadly, "I don't know what will happen to these programs."
In a December 30 telephone interview, Caroline Smith, a spokesperson for the county executive, confirmed the 50 percent cuts as "a certainty." "It is unlikely that the cuts will change," she added, though "Department heads were asked to make the cuts with prudence and compassion." When asked whether the county departments themselves were facing layoffs or cutbacks, Ms. Smith pointed to the recent agreement to institute a lag payroll for all county employees. According to the plan, employees will receive paychecks for ten days of work; earnings for the eleventh day would be held in abeyance. This pattern will continue year-round until the employee severs their relationship with the county. "Ultimately, our success in achieving a balanced budget will benefit every county resident," Ms. Smith added.
But members of the Port Washington community reacted with outrage and shock. For Mike Blumenfeld of Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington, it was also a call to action. "In a time of economic prosperity made terrible by Nassau County mismanagement, I hope the Community Chest would consider reopening its drive with a special appeal to help these organizations meet this challenge." Ms. Lasetchuk also encouraged all those concerned about Port Washington's services to call or write Mr. Gulotta.