Bleak Future For Borough Outlined At Budget Hearings
No one sounded happy during the public hearing held at Queens Borough Hall on February 9 concerning Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Fiscal Year 2011 preliminary capital and expense plan. The meeting was scheduled subsequent to Bloomberg’s January 28 press release announcing a four-year financial proposal that would close a $4.9 billion deficit. The plan would not involve tax increases and would lower spending by $1.6 billion, but the city’s workforce would be reduced by 1.4 percent.
In her opening speech, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall discussed the effects these budget cutbacks would have on all New York City employees. She stated, “This $63.6 billion budget includes $500 million in reductions to agencies this year and $1.1 million in Fiscal Year 2011. This is the equivalent of a 4 percent cut this year and 8 percent next year for most agencies. It will reduce the city’s workforce by more than 5,000 over the next two years.”
The public meeting had more than 150 speakers from various civic organizations talk about how the budget cuts would impact their operations. Among those who approached the podium throughout the hearing were the Queens Borough Public Library, Queens College, Queens Museum, Queens Legal Services, Queensborough Council for Social Welfare, Queens Council on the Arts, Queens Child Advocacy Center, Queens Inter Agency Council on the Aging and Mount Sinai Queens Hospital.
The district managers from all Queens’ 14 community boards also attended and discussed how the budget plan would compel them to let go of employees in their already understaffed offices. Stating that community boards are the only city agencies that have had no salary increases with the rate of inflation, Board 14 Chairperson Jonathan Gaska said, “The community boards’ budget is 0.02 percent of the city’s total budget and we are going to have 6 percent of all city-wide layoffs.”
Gaska also voiced the opinion of other district managers that planting fewer trees in Queens would reduce spending and prevent community board layoffs. He explained, “The mayor spends over $1,000 to plant a tree. If the mayor plants 28 less trees in each community board, you will not have to cut community boards. You will not have to have 48 layoffs. You will not have to have 48 people on welfare or food stamps.” Community Board 7 District Manager Marilyn Bitterman suggested cutting the planting of new trees by 40 in each community district to help restore proposed cuts to the boards. “How can I run an office with a one-and-a-half-person staff?” she asked, expressing the fears of many of the chairs that reduced funding would result in reduced staffing. Board 7, which covers Flushing, College Point, Whitestone other communities, is the largest of the city’s 59 community boards with 259,000 residents living within its borders. Marshall concurred, adding, “Queens has more trees than any other borough. A few less trees wouldn’t hurt us.”
All 14 district managers discussed the multitude of services they provide to Queens residents that the city’s 311 call system does not address. In addition to playing a role in the land use process, the community boards are involved with local projects concerning health care, education, public safety, infrastructure and housing. Community boards function independently from the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit.
Mentioning the indispensability of community boards, Marshall stated, “Community boards are really bringing the government to the people. We cannot take that away. People wanted simple things and we had to keep sending them to Manhattan. The people today know they can go into the community board offices and get help. 311 is very helpful in certain things, but when the problem gets complicated, it must come to the community board.” Marshall, joined at various times by City Councilmembers including Karen Koslowitz, Peter Vallone Jr., Eric Ulrich, Leroy Comrie and Daniel Dromm, vowed to do all that she could do to protect the boards.
In regard to libraries, Queens Library Chief Executive Officer Thomas W. Galante stated that their organization has lost 27 percent of its funding due to the recent cutbacks. He noted, “Unless these cuts are restored, library doors all over Queens will be closed all weekend, every weekend, and some during the week as well. Some libraries will be open only two or three days per week. We’re the busiest [library system] in New York City. We have millions more that come to see us than Brooklyn or New York Public, but we get the least amount of funding from the city.”
Scott Silver of the Queens Zoo, which hosted 220,000 visitors in a year, sought funding for a new chlorine system and a long-awaited jaguar exhibit–the only such exhibit in the tristate area.
Sheila Lewandowski, executive director of the Chocolate Factory, a performing arts center in Long Island City, said 10 percent of her budget is expected to “disappear” on July 1.
Judy Trilivas of Mt. Sinai Queens Hospital said the hospital has plans to build a new building, but needs $1.7 million for a new Emergency Department.
Joan Serrano-Laufer of Queensborough Council for Social Welfare, said the organization needs funding for additional space for its outreach efforts to victims of elder abuse and the current foreclosure crisis.
The day’s light moment came when Greg Mays of Better Jamaica, which puts on theater entertainment for children, presented members of the board with individual bags of popcorn. “We can’t give these bags of popcorn to our audiences,” Mays said, “It’s not in the budget.” Mays is seeking $20,000 in funding for future events.
While these reductions are already scheduled to take affect July 1, City Councilmember Peter F. Vallone Jr. attempted to explain the reasons for the fiscal reductions.
He commented, “The cuts the mayor is making [are] because of Albany. Every year, despite a balanced budget, we’re about $6 billion in the hole. Why? Albany, Medicaid, pensions, other mandates like that. So the economy has to increase $6 billion every year or we’re going in the hole. It’s not the mayor’s fault, it’s not city council’s fault. We’re doing everything we can do. Every time you hear an Albany legislator go up and rally against Medicaid reform, pension reform for more spending, then they say, cut the cops, cut the community boards. You cannot have it both ways.”
Marshall said that testimony given at Tuesday’s hearing would be used to help establish the borough’s priorities package, which will be sent back to the mayor and city council prior to the deadline for adopting the budget.