Bad-news-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is receiving few accolades these days as his approval rating plummets, will get a shot in the arm on June 1 when he is honored as Man of the Year at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty’s annual breakfast.
But a battle over some $1.6 million in funding for a major program could cast a pall over the event. The fate of a half-dozen community councils in graying Jewish neighborhoods hangs in the balance.
The program, known as Extended Services, enables the councils to help elderly clients navigate bureaucracy to obtain government services such as subsidized housing or Medicare. Administered by the Department for the Aging, the funding has been awarded to Met Council and its counterparts in Italian, Greek, Polish and Irish communities to pay caseworkers. Last year the program was cut by 20 percent.
This year, Bloomberg wants to eliminate Extended Services. His commissioner of the Department for the Aging, Edwin Mendes-Santiago, told a City Council committee that the funding was "redundant" because the city’s new 311 hot-line offers referrals and other advice about government services.
But Met Council executive director William Rapfogel says Extended Services, as the name suggests, is about much more than referral.
"If necessary, we will take a person, walk them over to the Medicaid office and sign them up," said Rapfogel, "or go with them to a hospital and act as their advocate."
The agency also provides cash assistance, transportation, food and other crisis help for the most desperate cases. Met Council’s network handled 321,796 cases last year.
If the program is sacked, the City Council could make up some of the slack with funding initiatives, but not enough to maintain services at the current level.
"We would have to be in the position of deciding which community councils to save," said Rapfogel.
Although the sum in question is relatively minor, the funds allow Met Council to leverage other money to run the programs from private donors and federal funds. Rapfogel insists the money is spent cost-effectively ($2.80 in tax dollars per client last year) with most of the "back office" administrative burden carried by private funds.
In a statement, Mendez-Santiago said he had to cut Extended Services in order to maintain Meals on Wheels, home care, transportation and other services for the elderly.
"The fiscal crisis has forced us to make some very difficult decisions," said the commissioner.
Agencies in the Jewish social services network will be major beneficiaries of the historic veto overrides last week allowing the state to increase revenues to maintain spending programs.
Gov. George Pataki had sought to drastically reduce or eliminate many services to avoid what he calls "job-killing taxes."
Among the programs breathing new life is one granting $1.2 million to naturally recurring retirement communities to keep the elderly out of nursing homes by keeping tabs on them in their own residences. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had made a top priority of safeguarding those funds, about 75 percent of which goes to UJA-Federation agencies.
Universal Pre-K is also back in business, with UJA-Federation getting about $2.5 million of the $200 million allocation.
Spending will increase by about $2 billion over last fiscal year, but some $2.7 billion is expected to be raised from an increase in the sales tax, the closing of corporate loopholes, a surcharge on individuals earning more than $100,000 or families earning $150,000 (a double surcharge for New York City residents) and increased fees on everything from park usage to tire sales. Silver insists the increases are a temporary fix to a drastic budget shortfall.
"It declines in the second year and disappears after three years automatically," he said.
Whether born-again fiscal conservative Pataki goes to court to fight the increases remains to be seen. But in the meantime UJA-Federation agencies are relieved, said Ron Soloway, the philanthropy’s managing director for government and external relations.
"We are pleased that we will be continuing to serve the needy populations we have served in the past," said Soloway, who noted that not every program has gone unscathed. "There will be decreases in services to young people, afterschool programming, youth development and delinquency prevention."
Democratic leaders have blasted the Independence Party over the past few years as a "hotbed of hatefulness" because of the influence of radical activist Lenora Fulani. The Anti-Defamation League has accused Fulani of anti-Semitism.
So what was Silver, the state’s highest elected Jewish Democrat, doing at an Independence fund-raiser in Albany last week?
"ìIn certain swing districts upstate, in Assembly races, the party is significant," Silver told The Jewish Week. "I am always concerned about the influence of Lenora Fulani, and I have not sought their endorsement myself. The governor seeks their endorsement, and all the leaders go."
Brooklyn City Councilman Charles Barron recently cast the sole dissenting vote against a resolution in honor of Israeli Independence Day and Memorial Day. Barron announced that he would support no resolution on Israel that did not also mention Palestinians or note the loss of Palestinian lives as well as Israelis.
"Their lives are just as important as anyone else’s," said Barron, who represents East New York and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Barron did, however, support a resolution taking note of Yom HaShoah. That resolution passed unanimously.
"I think everybody’s holocaust has to be remembered," he said.
After 10 years as the Jewish ombudsman in the Brooklyn Borough Presidentís Office, Rabbi Daniel Fingerer has been let go because of budget cuts. The rabbi said the work of representing Marty Markowitz at Jewish functions and presenting proclamations in his name would hereafter be done by volunteers.
"I’m saddened by the fact that I have to leave after having made friends with so many people from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds," Rabbi Fingerer said.
The rabbi, who qualified for civil service protection while at the job, landed quickly on his feet. Without losing a day of work, he reported Monday to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where he is supervising contracts for outpatient services.
Corey Bearak, a chairman of the Northeast Queens Jewish Community Council, has joined the staff of Councilman James Gennaro.
Bearak tends to end up where the action is. He worked for Fernando Ferrer when the then-Bronx borough president ran for mayor, and later for H. Carl McCall when the erstwhile state comptroller ran for governor.
Gennaro, who represents a heavily Jewish district that includes Hillcrest and Kew Gardens Hills, faces a primary this year from at least one Jewish challenger, David Reich.
At a recent Council meeting Gennaro told The Jewish Week about his disgust with anti-Semitic vandalism that "ruined my holiday" on Easter Sunday, and noted that his district office is downstairs from the Rabbinical Board, or Vaad, of Queens.
"I’m the only councilman that operates under the Vaad of Queens," he joked.