COJOs Hard Hit Without Earmarks

COJOs Hard Hit Without Earmarks

Governor’s veto of member-items costing agencies millions.

Lately, when clients show up on Fridays at the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush for help with social services, they are asked to come back on Monday.

“We’re running with a skeleton crew,” said the agency’s director, Rabbi Yechezkel Pikus. “There’s no one around to help them [on those days].”

The council is one of dozens of social service agencies across the state suffering not only from a loss or reduction of grants from state agencies but from Gov. David Paterson’s veto of member-item spending, money disbursed by local legislators to community projects in their districts. For agencies under the UJA-Federation of New York umbrella, the member-item funding loss is a $7 million hit, the organization says.

At the Flatbush COJO, the loss of member grants previously secured by Assembly members Rhoda Jacobs and Steve Cymbrowitz and state Sen. Carl Kruger means a hit of between $100,000 and $120,000.

As a result, two employees who helped clients find jobs are themselves out of work.

“We have a computer literacy program that empowered people who have to go back to work, [mostly] housewives who have been out of the workplace for 20 years,” said Rabbi Pikus. “The program helped them segue back into the employment market. Now they are up the creek.”

Also laid off from the agency was a client advocate who attended hearings on housing and food stamp issues for the elderly and people with language barriers. Asked if the money can be raised privately, Rabbi Pikus asked, “Are you kidding?” citing a private program that provided summer camp scholarships, which was shut down this summer.

One of the hardest hit agencies is the United Jewish Council on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with a loss of $600,000, according to the group’s executive director, Joel Kaplan.

“I’ve had to lay off five people, cut back staff and adjust [employee] health insurance,” Kaplan said. “The idea was to keep the core programs going for the person who needs information in any language — Spanish, Chinese, Russian. Being able to maintain staff for that person is critical.”

Still, he said, the loss of grants from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represents the Lower East Side, and state Sen. Daniel Squadron means cuts to transportation programs that help the elderly keep medical and other appointments, senior home care, a health care advocacy coalition and the Lower East Side Conservancy, an affiliate that preserves the area’s many historic landmarks and promotes tourism.

At the Queens Jewish Community Council, Executive Director Cynthia Zalisky said the agency has not yet tabulated how badly off it is because it is awaiting word on its annual allocation from the Queens borough president, Helen Marshall. Because of city budget cuts, Zalisky is not optimistic.

“We know we have already lost immigrant legal services, which are very important in an immigrant community,” she said. “We know there are going to be cuts in the English as a Second Language program. And there have been cuts from the [Department for the Aging] across the board, which affects us as well.”

Declining to give specific sums, Zalisky said the agency’s current shortfall would amount to 40 percent of its overall budget, while demand has increased by 30 percent.

“We are grappling with how to help these people,” she said.

Across UJA-Federation’s communal network, local organizations like the COJOS and Jewish Community Councils that provide services to the elderly, poor and immigrants, and others are facing a loss of close to $3 million, while another $4 million will be lost by larger organizations such as the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and FEGS from the state, which was facing a $9 billion budget deficit in formulating this year’s budget. Much of the budgets for local councils come from the legislators, who understand the needs of their constituents.

The agencies are taking a double hit since they not only aren’t getting new money, but also haven’t received funds from previous contracts that were frozen. Because the state budget is typically late, many contracts begin at the start of the fiscal year in hopes of maintaining past funds that later don’t materialize.

“We haven’t been paid yet for services provided last year,” said Ilene Marcus, chief of staff at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

Marcus said the member-item funding was crucial to assessing individual needs of clients.

“Benefits and entitlements [evaluation] and case management is the major need in social services,” said Marcus. “This is putting us in a tizzy.”

Ron Soloway, UJA-Federation’s managing director of external and government relations, said the budget impact would have been worse if not for federal contingency funds of about 70 percent of what Albany had sought. As a result, many programs with UJA-Federation agencies will be maintained. The impact of overall cuts in social service spending on the UJA-Federation network is still being assessed, he added.

But Soloway noted that there are an estimated 150 different grants from member-item funds that have been lost, affecting people with developmental disabilities, after-school programs and case management for the elderly.

“The hardest hit are the small community-based agencies,” said Soloway.

At the Bronx Jewish Community Council, the loss is about $200,000, said Executive Director Brad Silver.

“I will have to reduce staff at many of our offices,” said Silver, who is responsible for the main JCC and satellites that serve some of the city’s poorest Jews in Co-Op City, Pelham Parkway, Parkchester and the Concourse-North Bronx area.

Silver said that because of previous staff reductions, he has enough of a “cushion” to avoid immediate layoffs, but is unsure how long he can hold out.

The JCC runs perhaps the city’s busiest kosher food pantry, serving 2,500 people monthly. “We’re the only place you can call for kosher food in the Bronx that’s open five days a week,” said Silver. While much of the food is donated, the budget crisis may soon take a toll on staff at the food bank.

It is already affecting the JCC’s client intake. Unable to hire more caseworkers, Silver says he’s turning away walk-in clients who show up in the afternoons, focusing instead on those with appointments.

“There isn’t enough time to do the paperwork and follow-up,” said the director. “If it gets worse, we’ll have to eliminate walk-ins altogether.”


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