Budget Dance Stomps Services in East New York

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City Council Finance Committee Chairman and Brooklyn Councilman Domenic Recchia looks on as Mayor Bloomberg's budget chief, Mark Page, testifies.

Photo by: William Alatriste (Official NYC Council Photo)

City Council Finance Committee Chairman and Brooklyn Councilman Domenic Recchia looks on as Mayor Bloomberg's budget chief, Mark Page, testifies.

Fourth grader Diajia Pryce has been a student at the United Community Centers (UCC) after-school program since preschool. She loves the program, which she says helps her succeed in school and gives her opportunities for educational games, dodgeball and Black History month activities.

“It helps them. It keeps them busy, other than going home and watching TV. They interact with one another,” says Andrea Henry Pryce, Diajia’s mother.

But the program is closing at the end of the summer, and the Pryce family is among 75 families that will be affected. Diajia will have to stay home alone.

Ana Aguirre, Director of UCC, says that as of now, they have decided to end their after-school program because city funding is not guaranteed for next year, making it impossible to plan for the immediate future, retain staff and invest in staff development.

“Because it was not part of the base-lined budget, many of the staff felt like – ‘I should start looking [for other work],'” Aguirre says.

Under the mayor’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, East New York will lose funding for child care and after-school programs, leaving the neighborhood with only two after school programs.

“This is a reverse-Robin Hood budget. You’re robbing the poor to help the rich,” says Charles Barron, City Councilman for District 42, which covers East New York. “This budget is going to hurt poor, working class families, and East New York is one of the areas where it will be devastating.”

Other city services on the chopping block: the public libraries, foster care, homeless youth programs and child welfare. The budget would also eliminate 20 fire companies, but no specific fire stations have been named for closure.

Every year, the mayor and City Council argue over the city’s budget in their infamous “budget dance.” Last year, the Council extended most social services for one year using surplus revenue and the Council’s discretionary funds, a portion of the city’s money allocated by Council members. The Council is likely to again extend one-year funding to social-service agencies this year, Barron says.

But even when the money is restored, the budget dance is taking a toll. Nonprofit agencies say that year-to-year financial instability prevents them from developing high-quality programs and expanding their services to all those in need.

Hurt by the dance

Unsettled financing is frustrating staff at the Cypress Hills Child Care Corporation, says director Maria Contreras-Collier. Although the staff has some assurance of employment – the day care is a recipient of the city’s four-year Early Learn contract – they have been frustrated by limited health care options. Last October, the city terminated city health care coverage for Early Learn day care workers.

“The city made it very challenging for directors to keep really great teachers and senior teachers and have people continue getting additional training and education,” says Contreras-Collier. She said the center will lose 12 child slots this year due to cuts in federal funding as a result of the national sequester, and she is waiting to hear if there will be more city reductions to funding.

“This community has a real dramatic need and we have a really long waiting list and it would be a travesty losing even a few slots,” she says. She adds that protesting the budget cuts has taken time and energy that should have been spent on other responsibilities.

Robert Abbot, director of Youth and Family Services at the Cypress Hill Local Development Corporation, says that budget instability makes it difficult for after-school providing agencies to collaborate with hosting schools. If you’re not sure whether you will be funded the following year, “both parties are going to be less invested and are going to prioritize it less,” he says.

Branch libraries in East New York are also bracing for cuts to programs and library hours, but resources have already been slowly dwindling over the last five years. Cypress Hills Library had eight staff in 2008 – now it has about four, said a library worker.

Dornel Blair-Henderson, supervisor at the New Lots Branch Library, says she wishes they could purchase more library computers – a highly demanded resource in a community where many families do not have a home computer. She also wants to bring a special guest to enter kids at the Summer Reading Kick-off – but, she says, “there’s no money to buy anything.”

Alternatives to the dance?

Last year, an alliance of over 150 child service provider and advocate organizations calling themselves “Campaign for Children” came together to protest the mayor’s budget cuts. They ended up winning not only a restoration, but an increase in child services through City Council discretionary funds. This year they’ve united again to demand long-term, sustainable funding for child services.

Barron says that rather relying on discretionary funds each year to avoid social service reductions, the Council should reject the mayor’s budget and come up with its own “management efficiency cuts,” such as reductions of city agency public relations offices and to the city’s contracting budget, which he says can be reduced through more inhousing of services. Such alternative cuts, he says, would allow the city to increase social services for the working poor.

Barron says that the Council has the power to reject the mayor’s budget, but that they are afraid to oppose Speaker Christine Quinn. “There’s really no democracy in City Hall,” he says. (Quinn’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

He is not alone in his criticism of the City Council budgeting process.

“You could say that as an institution the Council takes a pragmatic approach to the budget and seeks to work with the mayor to find a ‘win-win’ outcome,” said David Pechefsky, former assistant director of the City Council Finance Division, in an e-mail to City Limits Brooklyn Bureau. “The less charitable view is that the Council has basically abdicated its responsibility to truly serve as counterweight to the mayor when it comes to the budget,”

The Council does ask policy analysts to propose alternative cuts in the Mayor’s Executive Budget, but these are hardly ever adopted, Pechefsky said, adding that it’s difficult for number crunchers to come up with feasible cuts in the middle of budget negotiations. To find credible alternatives, Council members must be more engaged year round in the process of scrutinizing city agency budgets, he said. “You’d have to reengineer the whole process,” he said.

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