CASHLESS LOCALS SUFFER, COUNCIL FEELS THEIR PAIN

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The latest front in the war of words between the City Council and Mayor Rudy Giuliani opened on Wednesday, as a parade of local nonprofit leaders testified in council that the mayor’s funding freeze was destroying their programs, and councilmembers proclaimed their intent to drag the fight into court.

The money’s been in limbo since June, when the council overrode the mayor with a budget of its own. Giuliani retaliated by refusing to release some $170 million that councilmembers usually give to community groups. This month, he admitted the freeze was an explicit protest of the council’s budget, which he called fiscally irresponsible. The council has vowed to sue the mayor to get the funds released, but back in August, Council Speaker Peter Vallone’s legal counsel Richard Weinberg told City Limits that any lawsuit must wait until groups “start feeling the pain.”

Wednesday’s day-long hearing featured plentiful tales of woe. Directors and staff from a string of nonprofits testified that, without city funds, staff was being laid off and services to youth, seniors and the poor were being cut back.

A City Project survey released at the hearing reveals just how dependent on the city many community groups have become. Of 55 groups caught in the funding freeze, more than two-thirds have reduced staff, and nearly one-fourth have delayed programs. Eight senior centers had to lay off staff who organize recreational activities. One Brooklyn youth group had to indefinitely postpone programs for some 90 students. Most of the groups surveyed said that the city money makes up more than 10 percent of their annual budgets.

A separate survey of 36 youth programs done by the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition found that 83 percent have yet to receive official notice of the funding delay.

Several councilmembers, including General Welfare Committee Chairman Stephen DiBrienza, said that the budget standoff would soon end up before a judge. “I believe that legal action is the only recourse, because there’s no dealing with this administration,” DiBrienza said. He added that it could happen within the “next several weeks.”

Councilmember Ronnie Eldridge also rattled her sabers, saying she’d rather sue than settle. “I worry about the power of council, I think it’s being eroded,” Eldridge said. “[This funding freeze] is responsible for the depression in this room and the depression in this building. All of this is disturbing the balance of power, if there is such a thing.”