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County social service cuts: too much, too fast?

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The county giveth and the county taketh away. Furthermore, it can do so without warning or regard to the wider implications of its actions.

            That's the hard lesson the heads of local social service agencies say they have learned in the wake of County Executive Jack Doyle's decision to cut county funding for their programs by over $1 million this year. And in the midst of a budget crisis that could put the county books as much as $65 million in the red next year, Doyle has proposed an additional cut of $6.8 million for 2003.

            As distressing as the county cuts are, the manner in which they were announced compounds the problem, says William Clark, president and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester. Earlier this summer, before Doyle outlined what specific cuts he intended to make, the Urban League got a letter from the county reminding the agency that the county reserved the right to renegotiate its contract with the social service provider. Such contracts spell out how much county money agencies will receive for specific programs they administer on the county's behalf.

            The letter "didn't indicate what programs or how much would be cut," says Clark. The day after Doyle's announcement, Clark says, "I picked up the newspaper and found out I had a $51,000 cut in Kiosk [a job placement program] for this year."

            Clark doesn't dispute the county's right not to provide money promised to his agency under contract, but he says, "You can't operate a program on the assumption someone can cut it."

            Joe Calabrese, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Rochester, says his agency never got the warning letter, but "that doesn't matter anyway." What matters, he says, "is that the county urged these agencies to provide these services" because the agencies had an expertise and/or could provide the services less expensively than the county. "The agencies then build up their infrastructure, they build up staff, they sign a lease they can't get out of, and nine months later, the county pulls the rug out from under them."

            Rescinding contracted funds "may be legal," Calabrese says, "but it certainly isn't ethical. It leaves the people they serve stranded and the agencies holding the bag."

Cuts to any one program can affect an agency as a whole, Calabrese says. For example, if an employee in a program directly affected by the cuts has to be laid off, the agency may have to provide severance and vacation pay, money that would have to come from other funds within the organization. Social service agencies "just can't ramp down as quickly as the county expects," he says.

            Cuts mandated by the county executive for this year can be made without legislative approval. Cuts proposed for 2003 will be debated by the full legislature in November. But, as Clark says, "We can't even wait on the legislature [to discuss the 2003 budget]. We need to react now. We may be spending money we don't have to provide services.

            "If you take money out of all these organizations, they'll need to be reducing staff, eliminating programs, and reducing the number of clients now," he adds.

            Even more worrisome for agencies is the fact the receipt of state and federal funds is often contingent on an agency receiving a certain level of county funding. Given that, the county cuts could end up costing local agencies as much as $15 million in county, state, and federal aid next year, Calabrese estimates.

            County administration spokesmen James Smith and Bob Nolan have not returned several calls from City since the cuts were announced.

Calabrese and several other social service agency executives have formed a coalition to urge Doyle and county legislators to restore this year's cuts, not make cuts Doyle's proposed for next year, and include the coalition in efforts to find a long-term solution to the county's budget woes.

            Calabrese says he understands the need to balance the budget, but has a harder time comprehending how the county found itself in a budget crisis. "The problem, as I see it, is that it should not have gotten to the crisis stage," he says. "As the county was using reserves to balance its budget in the past, it should have understood this moment was coming and put together a task force... to figure out how to get out of this mess."

            The county had as much as $56.5 million in reserve five years ago, but has since entirely depleted those funds.

            County legislator Mike Hanna (R-Perinton) says the current crisis "is no surprise." Quarterly budget projections he and his fellow legislators receive from the Doyle administration "forecasted that difficult times were coming." Though the crisis may have been precipitated by the events of September 11, Hanna says, "even without September 11, the mandates we receive from New York State have not allowed us to keep up with increased costs."

            Told of the coalition's hope the cuts would be restored, Hanna wondered, "Is Mr. Calabrese saying he supports a 30-percent [property] tax increase?" Doyle has said the county would have to impose such a large increase to balance its budget without making the entire array of cuts he's proposed --- and he has steadfastly refused to raise property taxes, which have remained flat for the last decade.

            Calabrese isn't advocating for a property tax increase of that magnitude, but he also rejects the assumption the county either has to raise property taxes or impose what he termed "Draconian" cuts.

            The county has had, and continues to have, "other options," he says, such as "a temporary increase in the sales tax" or an appeal to the state for additional funding. In light of the state's recent financial assistance to the city school district, Calabrese says seeking state help "is also a legitimate approach for the county, especially because the county executive says the reason the budget's not in balance is because of state-mandated spending."

            Either of those options would be contingent upon the approval of lawmakers in Albany. As neither option has been formally proposed, it's unclear what the state's response would be, or how soon such measures could ease the crisis.

            It's also premature to assess the coalition's chances of having funding restored this year or the next. The Doyle administration would have to reverse itself to restore funds this year, and the Republican-controlled legislature would have to approve a 2003 budget that reinstates the cuts Doyle, a Republican, has proposed.

            Calabrese says that when he presented his case to the legislature's Human Services committee in mid-August, "there was some support" for his position. He declined to name sympathetic committee members, but Republican vice chair Mark Assini of Gates is not among them.

            Assini says he does not support restoration of the cuts. Given county government's current situation, he says he prefers to let citizens decide for themselves what agencies to support through their donations.

            In terms of Calabrese's proposed solutions, Assini said he's interested in the option of raising the sales tax. "It's certainly a possibility," he says. And if the state or, for that matter, the federal government is willing to chip in to get the county through its crisis, "I'm more than willing to accept it," he says. "I'm not that proud."

            "I don't want to pay higher taxes, but sometimes you have to look at alternatives," Clark says. "I would prefer to pay more taxes to make sure people in the community are being served, as opposed to not paying taxes and watching neighborhoods deteriorate and the community just fall apart."

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