Mayor Michael Bloomberg's latest strategy to reduce city expenses includes yet another round of budget cuts for programs that serve low-income children, youth and families.
As part of his midyear financial plan, released in late November, the mayor directed city agencies to cumulatively carve nearly $1.6 billion out of their budgets for Fiscal Years 2011 and 2012, in an attempt to help shrink a city deficit that amounts, by the mayor's reckoning, to more than $3 billion. Many of the cuts will likely go into effect on January 1st, causing programs to scale back or close immediately.
Among the agencies likely to take significant hits are the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), which must cut more than $60 million over the next two fiscal years, and the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), which plans to pull close to $26 million from the community-based organizations it funds. This is the ninth time the agencies have been called on to trim their programs since 2008.
The mayor contends the city has no choice but to cut costs, and starting well in advance of the next fiscal year will minimize the damage to city programs. "The idea is if you start now you make it a more gradual process," says Marc LaVorgna at the mayor's press office. "The further ahead you're planning, the better the chance you have of lessening the impact on people and families served."
Advocates and providers counter that the mayor's plan hurts vulnerable New Yorkers at a time when the safety net has already been weakened. "The agencies that protect and nurture children have already eliminated any duplicative or nonessential services," Stephanie Gendell, an associate director at Citizen's Committee for Children, testified to the City Council last week. Further cuts, she said, "will have a profound negative impact on children."
The mayor's planned cuts have not yet been approved by the City Council, but fiscal analysts on both sides say the legislative nod is likely for the reductions in current fiscal year spending. The larger proposed cuts for the fiscal year that begins in July 2011 will be part of the spring budget negotiations between the mayor and the council.
CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES
Over the last few years, ACS has lost 1,000 staff through layoffs and attrition, coupled with a reorganization within the agency. With the November cuts, ACS will eliminate 257 more positions, including 80 managers in the division that investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect. Since the 2006 death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown, a child known to ACS who was killed by her stepfather, the number of abuse and neglect reports ACS investigates has remained far higher than it was even at the height of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s. Managers in child protection will now supervise more frontline workers.
ACS will also lay off 118 clerical workers by early spring, while further reducing staff at the agency's training academy. The agency also plans to cut 27 specialists who facilitate case conferences, scaling back a key initiative.
ACS plans to restructure homemaking services, a foster care prevention program that provides several months of in-home support to families who might otherwise lose children to foster care. Going forward, the program will focus on short-term help for families with children in danger of imminent removal from their home. While providers support using homemaking services as a way to stabilize families in immediate crises, they say it's critical the program continue serving families who have longer term needs, as well.
About one-third of the families that Brooklyn Community Services now serves are headed by a parent with a medical or mental disability, says Norma Martin, the organization's assistant executive director. One mother in her mid-sixties has cancer and is very sick, says Martin. A homemaker helps her take care of her 13-year-old daughter, who was adopted as an infant and has special needs. "What's going to happen to the little girl?" asks Martin. "Where is she going to go? Foster care?"
HOMELESS AND RUNAWAY YOUTH
DYCD plans to eliminate street outreach for homeless and runaway youth, and to cut funding to drop-in centers for young people on the street.
Youth shelters have been filled to capacity for more than two years, and often turn away youth who have nowhere to sleep. "Balancing the budget on the back of children sleeping on the streets is absolutely unacceptable," Councilmember Lewis Fidler said at a council hearing last week.
At the hearing, DYCD Commissioner Jeanne Mullgrav testified that very few young people went to shelters as a direct result of street outreach, making the program vulnerable to being shut down.
But staff at Safe Horizon's street outreach program point out that their mission goes far beyond steering young people to shelters. Outreach workers bring young people on the streets supplies like food, condoms and coats. It can take weeks or months of outreach before a young person visits a drop-in center or accepts other services.
Johanna Westmacott of Safe Horizon's street outreach program testified that the new cuts will force her organization to turn away even more young people with no place to go. "I cannot describe what it feels like to look a child in the eye who is desperately seeking help and the best advice you can offer them is to find a buddy to take turns sleeping in public and try not to get arrested for trespassing," she said.
AFTER-SCHOOL AND HOLIDAY PROGRAMS
The cuts also hit families who depend on city-run programs that provide child care, academic enrichment and social support to kids outside of school hours.
Each of the 66 city-funded Beacon programs, which serve as school-based community centers, will lose 10 percent of their DYCD funding√¢‚Ç¨, or about $38,000. Though the programs have been much lauded by the city, they already operate on less funding than when they were launched 19 years ago.
"Working families need a safe place for their children to go so they can keep working," says Anthony Ng, deputy director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses. "Beacons are already operating on bare bones and the funding continues to erode."
DYCD has attempted to help programs absorb cuts by reducing the number of people each center is contractually required to serve, but providers say they're not willing to turn young people away half-way through the program year. "No one's going to tell the 101st kid who comes to the door, "Sorry, you can't come in,'" says Gigi Li, a policy director at the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition.
DYCD also funds nearly 500 after-school programs across the city through its Out-of-School Time (OST) initiative. Beginning January 1st, those programs will lose 9 percent of their OST budgets.
The city adjusted after-school agencies' contracts, allowing programs to operate on fewer holidays than are currently mandated, but providers say the money they'll save through holiday closings doesn't make up for the funding that's being cut.
"We just can't see where the money's going to come from," says Amy Mereson, director of youth education and arts programs at University Settlement. "Our options are to close down for significantly more time, or we cut all the stuff that makes programs rich, chess, dance, theater, sports, the things that make a quality program, it's all taken away."
"The city's approach to trying to find what's ultimately pocket change on the backs of these populations that we serve, I can't wrap my brain around it," Mereson adds. "The assumption is always that community-based organizations will find a way. We're getting to the point where we can't find a way."