From now through March 24, City Council committees will be holding hearings on the preliminary budget presented by Mayor Bloomberg on Jan. 28. The annual budget gains momentum amidst a civic fog of dismay and uncertainty – dismay over the ongoing chaos in Albany, and uncertainty about how that, and the state’s generally poor economy, will affect the city’s $63 billion budget.

Council will gather its findings into a report to be delivered by April 8, which should inform the mayor’s Executive Budget to be released by April 26.

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed budget cuts funding across the board for city agencies and services, but less so at “bedrock” city departments like Police and Fire, where annual reductions of 0.6 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively, are called for. But the Department of Education – which educates 1.1 million students and has a budget of $21 billion – faces a 1.5 percent cut in the coming fiscal year, of $113 million.

Incorporating the governor’s budget projections – which anticipate a $1.3 billion gap in state funds for New York City – the mayor put forward a second “grim” contingency plan for the city’s schools, with dramatic staffing cutbacks a probability. If the governor’s budget is approved, local uniformed services may face a much bigger 3.6 percent cut, with other city agencies facing one larger yet, at 7.2 percent. It could mean reducing children’s preventive services by 30 percent – and eliminating funding entirely for 500 soup kitchens and food pantries serving New York City’s neediest residents.

In the mayor’s budget, funding for agencies that support children and families has been cut by more than for education, however: Money for the Administration for Children’s Services and the Department of Youth and Community Development have been slashed by about 4 percent each. Projecting forward, these cuts will increase in fiscal 2011, to 4 percent at DOE, 6.8 percent at ACS, and 8 percent at DYCD.

The DOE is the largest single allocation in the city’s overall budget, and as with the city itself, where wages and benefits comprise the greatest segment of annual costs, wages and benefits for the city’s teachers constitute the largest financial burden on the DOE. Gov. Paterson’s austerity measures, which dictate an additional $493 million in education cutbacks for the city’s schools, will result in “devastating effects on essential services,” Bloomberg said – including thousands of layoffs and deep cuts to city services. The cuts also could translate into the loss of 8,500 teaching jobs, which would result in increased class sizes, despite the city’s legal obligations as outlined in the Contracts for Excellence guidelines for improving academic outcomes for the most needy students, including funds for reducing class size in the city’s schools.

(Contract negotiations with the United Federation of Teachers, which represents roughly 80,000 classroom professionals, have stalled, largely on the city’s request for a lean 2 percent pay raise. Union leadership have requested arbitration to reach agreement. Union officials and education advocates alike are critics of the mayor’s threatened workforce reduction.)

Making do by doing less

While funds for education may be shrinking less than for other city agencies and programs, children at risk – those served by the Administration for Children’s Services, those whose families benefit from free child care, and those who reside in homeless shelters and count on soup kitchens and food pantries for sustenance – are not spared the budget axe. (That’s despite their growing ranks; the mayor’s office says that the number of homeless families has risen by 24 percent this year.)

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, umbrella social-service funding provided by New York state, has been gutted under Paterson’s proposed budget, with only nine programs funded in fiscal year 2011, compared with 41 funded programs in FY10, and sharply pared costs, from roughly $2 billion this year to $1.4 billion for next.

The TANF cuts erode or erase a swath of programs dedicated to child care for low-income families: The more than $14 million spent this year on child care at CUNY campuses, demonstration projects that model caregiving, and child care for migrant workers, has been cut entirely. (Child care subsidies remain significant and stable.) With or without the state’s cuts, the mayor’s office proposes shutting or consolidating 15 child care centers citywide, for a loss of over 1,200 child-care seats. Funding for home visiting, refugee resettlement, and the Nurse-Family Partnership – a successful prenatal care and early-childhood initiative – has also been cut entirely in the mayor’s proposed budget.

Funding is increasing, however, for Emergency Food Supplements – from no funds at all in FY10 to $10 million in FY11. Money for intensive case services, distributed via the city’s Human Resource Administration, have nearly quadrupled, from $3 million to $11.3 million. There’s also $41.5 in funding for the newly created Local Family Support Fund, which funnels federal matching funds into local programs to help needy individuals and families.

Despite vocal support from the city and state child welfare chiefs for community-based, alternative-to-detention models over youth incarceration (a measure the city Independent Budget Office highlights as a significant cost-savings measure), the governor’s proposed budget eliminates all funds for Alternatives to Detention and Alternatives to Residential Placement and Community Reinvestment. Also also gone are funds for Career Pathways, Welfare to Careers initiatives, and funds to help displaced homemakers return to the workforce. Critically, state support for Summer Youth Employment has gone from $35 million in the current fiscal year to zero in the next. Funding for non-residential domestic violence prevention also has gone to zero (from $3 million).

“The budget places too great a burden on our city’s children and families,” said Public Advocate Bill deBlasio. Yet few incentives appear to soften the blow.

Budget alternatives

The Independent Budget Office, which evaluates the mayor’s budget, proposes a series of cost savings and revenue-generators that can restore funding slated to be cut. For example, the IBO advocates eliminating DOE-funded transportation for general-education, non-public-school students: 128,000 students who attend private and parochial schools still receive free Metrocards for schoolday travel, and more than one-third of the yellow buses contracted by the DOE for student transportation are used to ferry children to and from schools outside the public system. Eliminating DOE transportation support for this group would save over $40 million – but achieving it would require a change in state law.

(The student Metrocard itself is a hot potato, as the MTA threatens to withdraw the agency’s support for students as its own cost-cutting strategy. Students across the city say they won’t be able to afford to get to school without the Metrocards. And the very architecture of school choice, a signature of the Bloomberg administration, is threatened if students must pay for transportation.)

Juvenile incarceration costs the city approximately $100 million a year, with an $84,000 average annual cost per child. Moving only 200 children from incarceration to alternative placements would net a $15 million savings – and benefits that can’t be as easily quantified, like a recidivism rate that’s two-thirds lower for youth in alternative programs compared with those in institutional settings (16 percent versus 50 percent).

Increasing class size by two students per class would yield nearly a quarter-billion in savings, according to the IBO. It would also lead to a loss of more than 2,300 teaching positions, making this change an unlikely possibility – as it would require revision of the Contracts for Excellence, the teacher’s contract and the Chancellor’s Regulations. But it’s one way to save $250 million, realistic or not.