Jewish communal groups that run social service programs breathed a collective sigh of relief this weekend when the City Council restored about $3 million in proposed cuts that would have severely curtailed their operations.
But the groups, like their counterparts in other communities, know they’ve likely received only a temporary reprieve. With a budget deficit of up to $7 billion projected for the 2004 fiscal year, which begins in July, social services are expected to take their biggest hit in decades. Some fear the looming crisis could threaten the very existence of Jewish community councils that help forgotten poor and elderly in changing neighborhoods.
"The storm is coming," says William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which operates most of the local community councils. "You can only walk between the raindrops for so long before you get drenched. The JCC network is at risk, some of them literally in danger of shutting down."
The $3 million in cuts were part of a modification package proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in order to erase a $1.1 billion deficit and create a surplus. Observers say a strong push for budget cutting puts the mayor in a better position to seek state approval of a restored tax on commuters.
In what has become a familiar ritual (former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani once called it a "mindless dance") the administration generally proposes cuts in social service knowing that the Council members will come up with alternate cuts to preserve their legislative grants, as they did this year. Those grants help them curry favor in their districts while addressing legitimate needs such as meals-on-wheels for the elderly, vocational training for immigrants and crisis intervention for troubled families.
Those initiatives, together with similar grants doled out by the five borough presidents, are the lifeblood of many community-based social service groups.
"A very significant majority of the concerns we had were ameliorated or addressed by the City Council," said Ron Soloway, managing director for government relations at UJA-Federation, the parent organization of most of the city’s Jewish communal agencies. "We now have to turn our attention to what will be a much more difficult set of negotiations. The cuts proposed for ’04 are much more significant in their potential impact on UJA-Federation agencies."
Those cuts could have a particularly harsh impact on the elderly because of the increasing aging population and the growth of programs aiding them. The mayor’s proposal for the next fiscal year, which begins in July, is expected to include the closure of 32 senior centers across the city.
Jewish agencies are also likely to face serious cuts when Gov. George Pataki releases his budget proposal in January. The state is facing an estimated $5 billion deficit. Recent cuts have already caused layoffs in the Jewish social services network, prevented cost-of-living increases for program workers, threatened information referral programs and caused the near-elimination of some programs, such as one run by Met Council providing safety and security repair work for homebound senior citizens.
The City Council’s finance chairman, David Weprin, noted that in addition to the community council funds, some 2,500 day care vouchers (many of them given to low-income chasidic families) had also been preserved. He said he was hopeful that aid from Albany and Washington would prevent the kind of service cuts seen during the city’s last major crisis in the 1970s. "At least $3 billion of this mess is tied to loss of tax revenue from Sept. 11," said Weprin, a Queens Democrat. "There is some responsibility on the part of the government because Sept. 11 was not an attack on the city but an attack on the nation. I think we can effectively make that case."
The resumption of the aid to Jewish groups is doubly reassuring given the doubts raised by the implementation of term limits last year. Some feared that the infusion of new Council members, including the speaker, would mean an end to the alliances that kept them in business.
"We were concerned that we had a lot of new Council people to educate regarding services that the Jewish community provides," said Soloway. "But this new Council brought in a commitment to human services, just like the old."
There are, however, other signs of fallout from a drastically changed political landscape.
Rapfogel noted that in the past Council members had more of a symbiotic relationship with the borough presidents, who looked after their interests on the Board of Estimate. But the board was abolished in the charter revision more than a decade ago. This year, the mostly freshman Council members allowed discretionary funds allocated to the borough presidents to be decreased by 15 percent.
"The Council is new and the borough presidents are also new," said Rapfogel. "That history is all gone. The whole structure of government has changed."
That decrease in funding will most severely affect the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough, where Borough President Adolfo Carrion typically spends a larger share of his funds on social programs. For the Bronx Jewish Community Council it means a loss of $50,000 for senior meal programs.
That’s on top of a loss of almost $90,000 the group suffered last year in cuts to aging and youth programs that were aided by Carrion. In the next budget, the community council stands to suffer an additional 21 percent in funding cuts.
"I’m being sliced and diced," said Brad Silver, the council’s executive vice president. "We’re supposed to be a safety net, but the net is getting shredded."
After he endorsed the Republican governor and helped a GOP candidate unseat a Democratic colleague, Brooklyn State Sen. Carl Kruger might expect a chilly reception in Albany from fellow party members. But Kruger, who ran as both a Democrat and Republican this year, insists everything is cozy in the Democratic conference.
"I think they recognize that this is the time to go forward and not look back," says Kruger, who initially faced an uphill re-election battle when his district was changed to include minority neighborhoods. The Republican majority later preserved his old bailiwick, and Kruger denies making any deals.
The newly installed Senate minority leader, David Patterson of Harlem, acknowledged that "there are some members who are quite angry about this." But he said he had no plan to seek retribution because the conference bylaws do not address members’ party disloyalty. Patterson said he wanted to study the matter more and hear Kruger’s side of the story. "What he did on its face seems unseemly … but for us as lawmakers to rush to judgment is un-American," said Patterson.