Long wait for Suffolk child care program

Nancy Gonzalez, left, a daycare provider from Brentwood Nancy Gonzalez, left, a daycare provider from Brentwood holds a sign protesting the county's budget cuts to child care during a rally at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge. (July 19, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

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More than 1,200 children dropped from Suffolk County's child care program since January are now on a county waiting list with few options for getting service, Suffolk Social Services Commissioner Gregory J. Blass told legislators Thursday.

Responding to questions from the Suffolk legislature's Human Services committee, Blass said it would take up another $10 million to bring back enrollments reduced in three rounds of cuts this year.

A dip in state funding and an increase in demand for the program, driven by the sluggish economy, forced the county to change its income eligibility requirements three times -- the most recent in July. There are 5,332 children enrolled in the program, which provides low-income working parents with child care subsidies. The program was developed as part of welfare reforms enacted in the 1990s. To qualify, families must fall on or below the federal poverty line.

"We're captive to the will of the state funding formula, which doesn't make sense," Blass said, arguing that the formula should take into account increases in enrollment.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) raised the possibility of using a $1.3 million increase in state grant money to make up for the child care cuts. But Blass said the money was needed to offset state cuts of the same amount to the county's child support enforcement bureau.

Asked by Majority Leader DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) about Suffolk providing some of the lost funding, Blass noted that County Executive Steve Bellone already has asked county departments to trim their 2013 budgets by 5 percent to 10 percent.

"We're not in the position to propose any new initiatives," Blass said.

Bellone spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said the county contributed $4 million toward the program this year, the first time the county has provided funds since 2008. Previous funding shortfalls were covered by federal stimulus money and increased state funding, she said.

Suffolk received $29.2 million from the state this year for the program, $600,000 less than last year.

Blass said he is pressing Long Island's state legislative delegation to back a revamp to the state's funding formula that would factor in increased enrollment.

Brian Lahiff, assistant director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk, a nonprofit advocacy group, said his organization has received calls from dozens of parents "desperately trying to make arrangements" for child care.

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