As state legislators and Gov. David Paterson worked to hammer out a mid-year cut in state spending this week, social service providers were eagerly waiting to see if they would use a scalpel or a chainsaw.
An across-the-board 10 percent cut, they say, would have a disproportionate impact on the elderly and other needy citizens. For example, reduced funding for English-language instruction for immigrants would not hurt the same as a cut to elderly services that might mean fewer meals on wheels delivered.
“If a senior citizen who is dependent on home care, transportation to medical appointments or home-delivered meals loses any of these services, that individual is at risk for institutionalization,” says Rabbi Moshe Wiener, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, which serves the city’s largest concentration of senior citizens.
Rabbi Wiener suggested that such cuts may provide a temporary budget stopgap, but will cost more in the long run because of Medicaid costs. “In many cases the result is much higher levels of government and taxpayer spending.”
Paterson has proposed a $5.4 million cut to the State Office for the Aging (SOFA), which doles out funds to programs around the state, with about 40 percent of its funds spent in New York City. The cut would be on top of a 10 percent cut in the current fiscal year.
Social service advocates and providers across the state, including UJA-Federation of New York, have campaigned against indiscriminate cutting, favoring instead an arrangement where some agencies would be exempt from cuts if they provide essential services.
“At some point, when you have a small agency like [SOFA] that can’t take wave after wave of budget cuts, you have to leave it alone,” said Bobbie Sackman, director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York. “There is no fat, nothing left in this agency to cut but services.”
The director of SOFA, Michael Burgess, said that federal stimulus dollars sent to his agency would, in the short term, preserve much of the meal delivery and communal meal programs. But he said a $5 million cut would eliminate new funding for programs that was allocated last year.
“We wouldn’t be able to serve as many people,” Burgess said in an interview Tuesday. “We’re hoping we won’t have to cut people off. What’s happened, to a large extent, is that we’re not kicking people off programs, but providing an extra meal at night — we’re not going to be able to do all that. So even a small 5 percent cut does change all of our programs and services.”
According to an analysis by Sackman, the proposed SOFA cut would eliminate $765,000 for case management and transportation services; $1.1 million for meals on wheels; $52,000 for programs for people with Alzheimer’s disease; and $95,000 for programs in naturally occurring retirement communities, as well as necessitating other reductions.
The chairman of the state Senate’s Aging Committee, Sen. Reuben Diaz, said on Tuesday night he had been assured by his leaders that there would be no cuts to the elderly, but said nothing was certain until a bill was approved.
“I have told them I will not vote for the bill if one penny is cut from senior citizens,” said the Bronx Democrat, noting that a deal between the governor and legislative leaders had been on and off three times since Monday night.
To soften the spending cuts, Senate Democrats have proposed a deal that included refinancing bonds purchased from a state settlement with tobacco companies to raise $500 million, increasing revenue from video lottery terminals by expanding hours, cutting $30 million in payments to consultants and other measures.
On Monday night a deal on the deficit reduction program was reportedly close when Paterson changed course and said the cuts weren’t deep enough. The following day the governor announced that he reluctantly accepted a $2.9 billion cut, less than the $3.2 billion he had advocated.
“We have cleared the roadblocks away” for a deal, said the governor.
Albany insiders said Paterson, who has begun airing commercials for a re-election campaign this year, is walking a fine political line. If he is too acquiescent in the negotiations he risks being perceived as too soft for the job. But if he blocks an agreement too long he will be tainted by Albany’s reputation for prolonged inaction.
Dan Weiler, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, said Tuesday afternoon that the lower house had blocked cuts to the state Tuition Assistance Program and Supplemental Security Income grants for people with disabilities as well as to meal programs for the poor and funding for non-public schools. Paterson had proposed a 3 percent cut to public schools and a 10 percent cut to a program that provides aid for tracking attendance at private and parochial schools.
“The Assembly rejected those cuts, but in exchange we restored other cuts,” said Weiler. “The big picture here is that we need to address the state’s fiscal condition and act now, and we were willing to do that.”
UJA-Federation’s lobbyist in Albany, Ron Soloway, said the likely cuts would be “unprecedented” and that the agency’s beneficiary programs were bracing for the impact.
“Taking a 10 percent hit on the remaining unspent funds for the year will clearly have an impact on our social services, “ he said as word of the deal spread on Tuesday. The current funding, he said, “will get us through the next month, but not through the next year.”
Most severely affected, he said, would be programs for the developmentally disabled, mental health services, youth and nutrition programs.
As they absorb the state cuts, New York City social service agencies will have to brace for more bad news. Right after his re-election, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered an immediate 4 percent cut for the remainder of this year and a 10 percent spending cut next year.
“This is staggering when you realize that the budget [allocations] for most social service programs is inadequate [to begin with],” says Rabbi Wiener of the Coney Island JCC, adding that private sector support for social services has been devastated by the collapse of some charitable foundations, even as the costs of providing services rise.
“Any type of administrative reduction that could possibly be done [to save money] has already been implemented,” said the rabbi. “We are already being strained to the limit. Future cuts across the board that are being proposed would curtail and in many cases handicap the ability of many organizations to maintain vital services for the most vulnerable.”