FINAL CITY BUDGET OFFERS BITTERSWEET HOLIDAY GIFTS

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More than a few nonprofit organizations breathed a sigh of relief last Wednesday after the City Council convinced the Giuliani administration to restore more than $55 million in proposed budget cuts that would have slashed everything from housing court advisors to Little League uniforms.

The negotiators put back nearly all of the housing cuts, including $1.25 million for legal services for tenant litigation and eviction battles. “We were frightened up until [Wednesday],” said a giddy Adele Bartlett, supervising attorney for the East Side SRO Law Project at MFY Legal Services. Also spared were the West Side SRO Law Project, $175,000 for the City Wide Task Force on Housing Court and a $397,000 cut in the Community Consultant Contract, which funds the tenant advocacy and organizing work of about 50 organizations citywide.

The mayor also pulled back on his proposed $4.8 million cut in youth programs that provide thousands of small grants to groups ranging from community centers to ballet troupes. “For local groups, it’s their bread and butter,” said Michelle Yanche, director of the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition. “To pull out this funding halfway through their fiscal year would have been very problematic. Much of these programs had spent their money already, under the assumption they would be reimbursed.”

This good news was still colored with some bad, however. Looking to narrow an estimated $1.3 billion gap in this year’s budget, the council agreed to $766 million in cuts. Proposed expansions in child care services, counseling for senior citizens and public health initiatives took big hits: For example, a prescription program that reimburses city hospitals and clinics for granting waivers to patients who can’t afford $10 administrative fees for prescriptions lost two-thirds of its $3 million budget. And health care advocates worry those waivers will never be revived. “Nationally, people are talking about the need to build the public health infrastructure. Here, we’re defunding critical programs,” said Judy Wessler, director of the Commission on the Public’s Health System.

The city found other savings by delaying issuing certain contracts for at least the next six months. The Department of Health will thus save more than $8 million, leaving some community health agencies wondering how their services will be affected; as the director of one Brooklyn center noted, since he is still waiting for reimbursements for work his group did nearly two years ago. The Department of Homeless Services will put a temporary hold on $385,000 worth of contracts for family shelters, and $1.7 million for adult shelter contracts.

While these cost-saving tricks will allow the city to put aside some cash in the shortterm, budget watchdogs say they do little to address future budget shortfalls, which the Independent Budget Office predicts will stand at $3.9 billion by the time Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the new City Council pass their first budget this summer. “We estimate that only about one-third of [last week’s] actions will help in future years,” said IBO Communications Director Doug Turetsky.

The IBO is doing its part to help close the budget gap, though. The new budget calls for savings in the agency’s heat, light and power bills for the rest of this year–$29 worth.