The city budget fight is headed to a new venue: U.S. District Court. On Tuesday veteran AIDS activists at HousingWorks filed a motion for a restraining order to halt Mayor Bloomberg’s plans to slash funding for the city’s AIDS services agency. Justice Cheryl Pollak of the Eastern District will hear arguments in the case Thursday morning.
Bloomberg’s budget – currently in the home stretch of negotiation with the City Council – calls for a $10 million cut to the HIV/AIDS Services Administration, which would translate to 248 fewer case workers for very poor, very sick people who get help with housing, food and medical care through HASA.
“Those benefits save lives,” Leroy Rose, a HousingWorks client who has AIDS and receives HASA benefits said in a statement. “If the mayor’s cuts go through, it will be like shutting down HASA altogether.”
Unlike many services on the chopping block during this year’s bleak budget season, caseworkers at HASA are specifically protected under city law and established case law, said Housing Works’ Senior Staff Attorney Armen H. Merjian. “The mayor cannot simply ignore the law because it is a tough budget year,” he said.
In a landmark decision ten years ago, U.S. District Court Judge Sterling Johnson ruled that the city of New York was in effect denying benefits to people living with AIDS because it made it so difficult for them to access services. He ordered the city to comply with a 1997 law passed by the City Council. Local law 49 mandates a 1:34 caseworker to client ratio at HASA. The caseworkers are supposed to serve as a type of handicap access ramp for the clients, who under a 1990 federal law are considered disabled. Bloomberg’s proposed cuts would dramatically increase caseloads, Merjian said. “It’s like tearing up the handicapped access ramp at the library,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Human Resources Administration, of which HASA is a part, said the cuts were not illegal.
“We do not believe there is any violation of the court order or the local law. Because this is now in active litigation, we will strenuously defend the authority of the Administration,” a spokesperson said in an email.
HousingWorks is also directing some of its ire over the mayor’s proposed HASA cuts at the City Council. Two weeks ago the group disrupted a City Council hearing on the budget, unfurling a banner and chanting slogans, pressuring council members to restore full funding to HASA.
David Thorpe, Communications director for HousingWorks said the group and thousands of vulnerable people living with AIDS are angry at City Council Speaker Christine Quinn for what they consider a failure to stand up to Bloomberg over the cuts.
“Why isn’t she enforcing this law that the council itself passed? We really wanted to see better advocacy on her part. We are upset that she is not standing up to the mayor on this,” Thorpe said.
Quinn’s staff declined to comment, saying they were busy negotiating the budget.