THE LAST DANCE?: SERVICE PROVIDERS
HOPE FOR A SWEETER TUNE NEXT SPRING

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By week’s end the annual “budget dance” of funding negotiations between the mayor and City Council will be over: the music stops, the fiscal year begins, and city service providers from large public agencies to small private nonprofits find out how much funding they’re getting from the city.

As dances go, this one is joyless enough that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has announced that making the budgeting process more transparent and efficient is a top goal. But this year the spring rite is playing out mostly as usual, in the interval between the mayor delivering his $52.7 billion Executive Budget in May with a portion of last year’s funding missing, and the City Council hammering out a final budget by June 30 with some or all of that funding restored. That space between contains countless programs and jobs whose futures are up in the air for two months. And the people responsible for all those programs and jobs have, over the years, grown tired of dancing.

“I’ve got to be prepared in two week’s time to potentially lay people off. It’s very unsettling,” said Jay Laudato, executive director of the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in Manhattan that provides health services to all regardless of ability to pay and focuses on the LGBT community. With an annual budget of $11 million, the clinic served 12,000 people last year, half of whom were female. Its gynecological services and sexual health clinic are totally reliant on City Council money.

“It’s tough because every year it’s lobbying and asking for funds and it is difficult to build sustainable programs on discretionary monies,” said Laudato, who’s waiting to find out whether Callen-Lorde will receive $500,000. That’s just one part of the $338 million in initial suggested Council “restorations” of what was funded last year, but left out of the mayor’s Executive Budget.

“However, this is the only vehicle the City Council has at its disposal to meet unique needs, and we’re terribly grateful,” he said.

Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, is working to change that vehicle. Groups waiting to have funds restored by the Council are funded on a year-to-year basis rather than being included in the four-year Financial Plan, or “baselined.” The goal of Hong and others is to get funding baselined for those programs in health, childcare, housing, senior services and more that currently hang in the balance.

“We thought it was going to be different this year, and we’re still hopeful. But until the Mayor baselines this initiative,” Hong said, referring to the multi-million Immigrant Opportunity Initiative, “we’re still trapped within the budget dance dynamics.”

The Coalition’s constituent groups deliver English classes, immigration legal services and employment-related legal services to immigrants. “It’s a scandal. It’s creating huge cash-flow problems,” she said. “It makes it impossible to plan — organizations need to know how much money they have. In the end, the real victims are immigrants who are not getting services.”

Yu Soung Mun is executive director of one of the groups, YKASEC – Empowering the Korean-American Community, that receives the Immigrant Opportunity Initiative money. His organization is waiting on word about $75,000 of its $350,000 annual budget, which goes to fund comprehensive legal services for Koreans in Korean. It’s the only organization for Korean workers in the northeastern states, Mun said. “We’ve got to have the programs,” he says simply. Like other nonprofits, the rest of his funding is a mix from foundations, other governmental grants, corporate and individual contributions, and fundraising events.

Laudato, of the Callen-Lorde clinic, said, “I would gladly receive less money if we had the security that we would receive it every year,” though he pointed out that becoming part of the four-year Financial Plan requires going through the formal bidding process.

The Council plans to keep up its efforts at enacting a variety of budget process reforms, of which this particular dance is only one part, said Quinn’s press secretary, Maria Alvarado. She sees two advances made this year: two agencies have committed to providing vastly more detailed budgets next year; and an element of the Council’s preliminary budget response, a recommendation to buy state-of-the-art bulletproof vests for police officers, was included in the mayor’s Executive Budget.

For now though, the budget routine is more of the usual and none too lovely, observers say. From her perch as chairwoman of the New York City Arts Coalition, Norma Munn says she’s glad she deals with the “sane” state Council on the Arts rather than the city.

“It’s not a very well-choreographed or beautiful dance,” Munn said of the ritual that many of her colleagues must endure. “I really think of it more as a shuffle…or three-card monte.”

“It gives dance a bad name,” she said.

—Karen Loew