Sparing Many Rods

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Despite a $5 billion-plus hole, this year’s city budget ended up being less brutal than even those from more prosperous times. Advocates for the poor, anticipating much deeper cuts, had feared for the survival of programs that paid for everything from poor people’s medicine to helping neighborhood housing groups fight evictions.

When it came to public health, the numbers were so kind that one relieved activist described this year’s budget in a jubilant email as “a shining moment in a continuing struggle.” Of the programs the mayor suggested slashing, here’s what they got in the end: A program to reduce infant mortality in central Harlem and central Brooklyn will get $5 million total in state and city money; the city will reimburse public hospitals $3 million for waiving a $10 administrative fee for prescriptions for low-income, uninsured patients (the mayor had proposed eliminating the reimbursement entirely); and $5.5 million to family health clinics was restored. A $5 million package for HIV/AIDS care and prevention for people of color went untouched–remarkably, considering it was new spending.

That’s not to say there weren’t any cuts. The final budget only restores $1 million of the city’s $13 million tobacco control budget. And the city ended a $1 million contract with the Primary Care Development Corporation that helped struggling community health clinics adjust to managed care.

One of the major sticking points–as big as the recycling cuts, according to some–was the proposed privatization of some city ambulance service. The mayor initially planned replacing 75 city ambulance tours with private services. Though that would have saved $3.3 million, according to the Mayor’s office, public health advocates and union officials fought it, accusing private ambulance services of “steering,” or taking paying patients to their own hospitals while dumping uninsured patients at public hospitals. After a last-minute battle, the City Council restored 37 of the 75 shifts.

Housing advocates were surprised but pleased that millions of dollars in proposed cuts to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development budget were restored, like a threatened $2 million cut to a $2.75 million program that funds legal services and tenant organizing to fight illegal evictions. Just a few weeks ago, Adam Weinstein, director of one of those groups, Goddard Riverside’s West Side SRO Law Project, worried aloud that Mayor Bloomberg’s cuts would force the project to “shut [their] doors.”

The City-wide Task Force on Housing Court will also keep its doors open, despite Bloomberg’s push for a $263,000 cut. Also restored was the $1.05 million Community Consultant program and a proposed $9,000 cut to the $45,000 Neighborhood Preservation Consultant contracts.

Homeless services also made out well, considering. Slated to lose $9.5 million in shelter contract funding in the budget proposal Mayor Bloomberg released in April, shelter contractors were able to hold on to all but $800,000 of that. And the Family Rental Assistance Program, a rent voucher program for homeless parents who work, maintained $628,000 of the mayor’s proposed $1.2 million cut.

Overall, the budget news was so good that some City Council members are openly hinting they should be allowed to stick around past fiscal year 2004–the year the current crop of City Council vets will be facing term limits. “The good news is that we closed the gap, the emergency Financial Control Board can go away, there will be no city to take over today,” said City Councilmember Bill Perkins. “But the bad news is that the news is not good for our future–we’re going to have to stay at the helm. It may not be a good time to be changing the guard, considering the fiscal bad news.”