BY MICHAEL RICONDA
Valley Cottage – State legislators representing various districts in Rockland County invited local municipal, business, and nonprofit leaders to the Valley Cottage Library on February 14 for a joint session to discussing Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal.
State Legislators in attendance included Senator David Carlucci, Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, Assemblyman James Skoufis, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, and Assemblywoman Annie Rabbitt. They were addressed by representatives of groups which included CANDLE, the Empire State Passengers Association, Disabled American Veterans, Concerned Citizens of East Ramapo, the New York Alzheimer’s Association, Child Care Resources of Rockland, Camp Venture, Planned Parenthood, the Rockland Independent Living Center, and TOUCH.
Education and childcare issues were a major item of conversation, with Legislative Chairwoman Harriet Cornell speaking on the tangible benefits of early childhood programs and questioning whether schools can rely on the budget to meet their needs.
“We know the importance of early education, vocabulary development, afterschool programs, and education in arts and music,” Cornell explained. “They’re not frills. They’re facts. We know that children learn better when they’re not hungry. We know that afterschool programs help children increase grades, improve behavior, and prevent youth violence.”
Child Care Resources of Rockland Executive Director Jane Brown praised the state legislature’s Letter for Quality Stars system, which ranks early childhood programs. However, Brown also criticized cuts to childcare subsidy assistance, which funds childcare for low-income families.
“We really need to look at sustainable funding for community schools, not just a one year grant program,” Brown said.
The East Ramapo Central School District continued to be a thorny issue for county residents. Peggy Hatton of Concerned Citizens of East Ramapo thanked Jaffee and Zebrowski for support in defeating a recent bill relaxing restrictions on private school placement for religious and cultural reasons and asked the representatives to vote against special education improprieties and further cuts which could harm the district. Carlucci had voted for the bill in question, but later said he regretted his vote and changed his position.
Rockland Independent Living Center Parent Advocate Donna Ehrenberg also brought East Ramapo schools into focus, explaining that the troubled school district was in desperate need of social workers and teachers capable of serving the needs of disabled students.
With significant adjustments to healthcare programs, public health advocates also took the opportunity to speak on possible funding cuts. Camp Venture Executive Director Dan Lukens mentioned a recent $1.1 billion Medicaid adjustment levied by the federal government to compensate for improper overcharges and argued the charge required mitigation to prevent a severe impact upon patients.
“The governor’s office and the state commissioners are working to develop a sustainable path for the future of Medicaid,” Lukens said. “That path means developing new kinds of services that rely on a light touch, which is really the minimum amount of services that people need in order to sustain the system. We’re not going to take people in long-term care programs and put them on the street.”
Both Community Awareness Network for a Drug-Free Life (CANDLE) Executive Director Joanne Goodman and Robert Maher of TOUCH stated the budget would no longer earmark HIV and chronic disease prevention services.
According to Maher, money was often specifically set aside for prevention in previous budgets, but the new budget may pool previously allocated funds, forcing organizations to sacrifice time and energy to compete for limited resources.
“The money that we all want and we all would like to have is not there and it’s not going to be, but when we’re doing things such as the bucket or the bundling, that makes it even harder to know where the money is going,” Maher explained.
Ehrenberg presented the case for continued assisted living funding, arguing the Center saves nine dollars for every one dollar invested. Ehrenberg suggested temporary funding for navigators who can help individuals find insurance plans as per the state’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act, as well as access to the Home Rehabilitation Loan Program, which helps the disabled to find housing.
Despite cuts to individual programs, the budget proposal contains an overall 4.4 percent boost in education spending, as well as measures to help municipalities restructure and pay down rising health care and civil service pension expenditures. Still, such local restructuring and loan programs have garnered criticism for delaying solutions rather than actually controlling costs.