Nassau Democrats want youth services to get unclaimed jail money

Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos at his Massapequa Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos at his Massapequa office on March 19, 2013. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Democrats in the Nassau County Legislature want to direct hundreds of thousands of dollars in unclaimed funds to youth, senior and mental health programs that have grappled with budget cuts in recent years.

They have filed legislation calling for $570,000 in unclaimed jail funds to be directed to youth social services programs. Another measure of theirs would dedicate all future unclaimed money to a range of social services agencies.

However, majority Republicans are noncommittal about whether they'll allow the proposals to come up for a vote, saying they are awaiting the opinion of the county attorney on how the money can be spent.

The bills, filed on April 23, followed an audit of Nassau's correctional facility in East Meadow by Republican Comptroller George Maragos.

Maragos suggested that the money -- which was left by former inmates in their commissary accounts -- be directed to the county's youth programs, which long have sought a dedicated source of funding.

The unclaimed money, accumulated from 1990 to 2007, has been held in the treasurer's office trust fund. Under state law, the money is available for use after lying unclaimed for at least six years.

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"Whether it is a little or a lot, it's important that we are directing these funds toward programs and people who really need it," said Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport).

Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said she could not comment on whether she'll allow a vote because the legislation is under "legal review."

She said that "before allocating the unclaimed funds for any purpose, we must first get an opinion of the county attorney determining whether it is appropriate and legal to do so."

County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, also has "requested a legal opinion on the matter," spokesman Brian Nevin said.

While welcoming the Democrats' proposals, youth advocates cautioned that the unclaimed money would not be enough to sustain the nearly 30 nonprofit groups that received some $6.2 million in county funding this year. The groups provide after-school tutoring, gang prevention initiatives and rehabilitation programs.

The youth agencies previously received about $8 million from revenues generated by the county's red light cameras. But in 2012, the county legislature, during a partisan dispute over legislative redistricting and the budget, voted to end the direct funding, cutting the groups' allotments in half.

After several months of protests and negotiations with county leaders, the groups were able to win restoration of 65 percent of the money -- but not before several agencies laid off employees and cut program enrollment.

"We've been fighting to get a dedicated funding source for years," said Peter Levy, executive director of the Nassau County Coalition of Youth Services.

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"Our funding is at the whim of government officials and that's just not the way kids should get their services."Maragos spokesman Jostyn Hernandez said that although the comptroller had not reviewed the Democrats' legislation, the audit and his recommendation were meant "to get the conversation going" about what to do with the unclaimed money.

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