BUDGET WATCH: WHAT NEW YORKERS STAND TO LOSE, AND KEEP

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Mayor Bloomberg could not have been clearer: “You can’t go and manage a budget without having everybody go up in good times and share the pain in bad times,” he said at his budget presentation last Wednesday.

In his budget-cutting proposal, the pain, to the tune of a $1.8 billion cut, is spread around to some degree. But while many budget watchdogs say the cuts made to each city agency could have been much worse, at least some agree that the brunt of the burden falls on the city’s poorest residents.

The budget cuts “seem to be focused on a lot of vulnerable populations,” said Glenn Pasanen, associate director of City Project, a budget watchdog group, after poring over the three-volume proposal last week. Under Bloomberg’s plan, the city’s housing agency, which took the biggest proposed reduction–26 percent–would no longer fund legal services for tenants, and several tenant assistance contracts would be trimmed. Other hard-hit programs include emergency food for seniors and services for homeless families and adults.

To concerns like Pasanen’s, Bloomberg says, “Talk to me.” Last week he called on City Council members, journalists and the general public to let him know how his proposal can be made better. But, he warned, don’t come to me unprepared. “If you come up with a cut you don’t like, just tell me where else we can cut and tell me how the person whose ox is going to be gored is going to handle that.”

The Bloomberg administration did prove responsive to at least one request last week. After he questioned the Human Resources Administration’s omission of the $2.65 million Family Anti-Eviction Program from the mayor’s financial plan, Steve Banks of the Legal Aid Society said the city promised it will keep the program alive. Noting that there are still two other pools of legal service funds in jeopardy (see below), Banks said, “I’d say this is a good sign with respect to the other two programs.”

Here is a sampling of Bloomberg’s other cuts:

For dozens of nonprofit groups that depend on city contracts with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to fund tenant organizing, legal counseling and landlord training, budget time is déjà vu all over again. Included in a 26 percent cut to the agency’s budget is the elimination of a $2 million legal services contract, through which the Legal Aid Society, Legal Services for New York City, the East Side SRO Project of MFY Legal Services and the Goddard Riverside’s West Side SRO Law Project help stop illegal evictions and protect tenants’ rights.

Also cut completely was $1.05 in Community Consultant contracts, which funds tenant advocacy and organizing for 59 agencies citywide. Then there’s a $263,000 cut to the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court and the elimination of a $200,000 grant to the Community Training and Resource Center for a landlord training program that teaches building owners to maintain their buildings and manage their accounts.

While housing advocates are trying to convince the City Council to restore funding, they say this year they had hoped such negotiations wouldn’t be necessary. “Bloomberg spoke aggressively when he was running for mayor about preserving and creating affordable housing, but now the city housing agency takes the biggest hit of any of them,” said Irene Baldwin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. “It’s very disappointing.”

In the case of services for the city’s homeless, Bloomberg’s budget does more to create additional shelter space than it does to prevent homelessness. Funding for shelters for families and single adults will rise by $5.1 million and $3.3 million respectively for the fiscal year starting July 1. With additional increases in funding by 2004, the Department of Homeless Services will create 950 new beds for homeless families, and 460 new beds for adults, according to the Independent Budget Office.

Meanwhile, some preventive programs will be downsized. Bloomberg calls for making 5 percent across-the-board cuts on adult and family service contracts with nonprofits, said the IBO. And the Family Rental Assistance Program, only for homeless parents who work, would be phased out over the next few years. Started in 2001, the rent voucher program has only served eight families so far

The city does hope to bring more federal cash to DHS by working with the Human Resources Administration to enroll more families staying in shelters in public assistance.

Smaller cuts are in store for the city Human Resources Administration, which is losing a little more than $69 million of the agency’s nearly $4 billion budget. According to agency officials, most of those savings aren’t actually service cuts but simply creative financing moves.

For example, the agency proposes saving $10.5 million in city tax dollars by using federal Housing Opportunities for Persons with HIV/AIDS (HOPWA) dollars to pay for case management services, through which staff in the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) provide support, benefits and referrals. That funding shift isn’t new–the Giuliani administration did the same thing the last two years–and it won’t affect HASA’s casework, says HRA spokesperson David Neustadt: “The bottom line is that no one is being laid off and no one’s work is changing. It’s just a change in funding.”

But AIDS advocates say that city’s continued use of HOPWA money for basic services shortchanges housing programs. “We’re concerned because that money is supposed to be used to build AIDS housing,” said Terri Smith-Caronia of Housing Works. HOPWA was originally intended to build new apartments and provide rent subsidies in scatter-site housing for people with AIDS. In 2000, however, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development granted the city a waiver to use the funds for casework.

A sharp cut in HIV and AIDS funding is found in the Department of Health budget, where Bloomberg eliminated all but $900,000 of what had been $5 million in education and prevention programs for communities of color in the five boroughs. That $5 million–cut to $2.5 million in December by Giuliani–was going to provide $250,000 grants to 20 community agencies for special programs seeking to slow rising HIV infection rates among particularly vulnerable communities of color: youth, men who have sex with men and transgendered persons. “This city has the largest number of people with HIV and AIDS in the country,” said Smith-Caronia. “What does this cut say about New York’s commitment to HIV prevention and care?”

A 17 percent budget cut at the Administration for Children’s Services only hints at how little clout this agency’s low-income constituency has; the vast majority of its spending is mandated by law. The biggest whammy, following the recommendation of the Giuliani administration, is to virtually eliminate a planned expansion of day care slots, for a total savings of $85 million this year and then between $70 million and $80 million over the next four years. The proposed expansion was made possible by an increase in New York’s federal Child Care Block Grant. That money will now go into the city’s general operating budget.

There’s just one hitch: A state law appears to prohibit the use of federal child care block grant dollars to substitute for existing child care funding. The Welfare Reform Network has been bringing this detail to the attention of elected officials, including City Council General Welfare Committee chair Bill DeBlasio, whose staff is looking into the matter. DeBlasio is “definitely concerned about using any state or federal dollars specifically targeted for programs for children to take the place of budget cuts,” said aide Peter Colavito. “You can’t balance the budget like that.”

Meanwhile, the private agencies that provide most foster and child care services will be nicked by the guillotine, with a one-time audit seeking to reclaim $7 million that the agencies failed to spend between 1993 and 1995. The Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, their trade group, contends that most of the unspent funds have already been deducted from their basic rate by the state, which recalculates payments every two years; in effect, said spokesperson Edith Holzer, the cut would be “a double hit.”

Other cuts: A new initiative paying for babysitting services for foster parents has been scrapped, as has a planned program to train teenagers for jobs to help them survive after release from foster care.
The agency has also revised its estimate of its foster care costs downward by $7.1 million a year, reflecting a sharp trend downward over the last three years in the number of children in care. However, since September those numbers have been creeping back up, to a current total of 28,644. “We still anticipate a reduction,” says agency spokesperson Jack Deacy. “If that changes, the reality is we’ll meet whatever obligations we need to meet.”