ALBANY GIFT BAG HALF-EMPTY

Print More

Gerald Norlander, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project, is spending much of his time these days on the phone with legislators in Albany to detail why his 25-year-old program for low-income utility customers is worthy of even a fraction of the $778,000 it received from the state last year.

Due to the state legislature’s decision last week to divide just $100 million among thousands of nonprofit groups across the state for the fiscal year ending in April, organizations like Norlander’s suddenly find themselves spending exorbitant amounts of time, and in some cases money, to get some of the state’s cash.

A month after assuring service organizations that they would receive a total of $200 million for the fiscal year ending in April–a slim portion of the approximately $400 million they usually get–Gov. George Pataki and leading state lawmakers agreed to make available only half of that money now, saving the other $100 million for next year’s budget, according to a spokesman for the governor.

Already scrambling to figure out how they will continue running their programs on budgets that are quickly dwindling to shoestrings, social service groups are now going as far as hiring lobbyists to make sure their needs are heard, and funded.

“Even the full amount wasn’t enough to give all nonprofits adequate funding,” said Michael Kink, legislative counsel for Housing Works, an AIDS service group. Over the past month, Kink has helped put together a coalition of about 40 AIDS service providers, many of which have hired lobbying firms to help them with their effort.

Legislators are expected to submit their budget recommendations outlining what organizations should get what money within the next few weeks.

Some legislators expect groups with unspent funds from previous years will likely get thinner pieces of the pie, if anything at all, this time around, while local projects funded as so-called “member items” could at least get funded at last year’s levels. “Some programs may fall off the list, some may only get 10 cents to the dollar,” said Assemblymember Richard Gottfried of Chelsea. “The only groups sleeping easier are member items that are fully restored.”

Whether all of the $100 million will go to social service groups is unclear, however. Though the funding bill passed in October pressed for aiding “direct human services or emergency relief services,” it also gives lawmakers more flexibility to finance any groups that received money last year and would have to cut services or staff without state dollars. “That last definition is for anything under the sun,” said Kink, adding that unless Housing Works gets state money, it will eliminate programs for kids whose parents are HIV-positive and for patients trying to maintain strict drug regiments. “Now’s time to put the swimming pools and Little Leagues on the back burner.”

Meanwhile, groups are wishing there were an organized process for applying for funding. “I continually get calls from groups saying, ‘My funding is running out, what should I do?'” said Ron Deutsch, executive director of Statewide Emergency Network for Social and Economic Security. “All I can tell them is to contact their legislators about why it’s critical to fund their services. If this weren’t so sad, it would be funny.”