Opinion: Nassau County's budget decisions are moral ones

"The investments and cuts we make are defining

"The investments and cuts we make are defining moral choices," write Judy Cohen-Rosenberg and Stephanie Pope. (Credit: Donna Grethen)

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After months of political wrangling, the Nassau Legislature had planned to vote Monday on our county's budget for the coming year. The vote has been delayed, and as elected officials continue negotiations, they have a tough task in setting Nassau's fiscal priorities. They face difficult, unavoidable choices about how to balance needs and resources, how to distribute burdens and sacrifices. These choices are economic, political -- and moral.

As religious leaders, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable fare. We look at every budget from the bottom up: whether, as Isaiah demanded, it "breaks every yoke," ensuring comfort for the hungry and afflicted (Isaiah 58:6); how it treats what Jesus called "the least of these" (Matthew 25:45).

Here in Nassau County, it appears elected officials are doing quite the opposite. In July, County Executive Edward Mangano implemented a $7.3-million cut to the annual budget that completely defunded youth and family programs: after school and drop-in centers, mental health counseling and gang prevention services. The proposed budget for 2013 leaves these and other human services out in the cold again, doing immeasurable harm to the families and communities who rely on them. Such sweeping cuts are not only bad economics, they are morally wrong.

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We know the importance of such programs first hand. A 7th grader has lost the homework help and mentoring programs that have turned him into a star student. A working mother hopes to hold onto her job, as extracurricular after school programs disappear. Long Island families are struggling to stay afloat. The county must not slash the public programs that help them succeed.

Faith-based institutions are proud of our work for the poor and the hungry, but we cannot do it alone. In our communities, young and old residents alike recognize the need to provide safe, supportive space for youth. Such opportunities keep children and teens off the streets and on the path to success, helping businesses and residents thrive.

Our leaders need to focus on families. In 2009, to protect vulnerable Long Island youth, the legislature established a stable funding source for them. Although county politicians voted unanimously on the issue just three years ago, the county cut that youth and family lifeline in May.

Vital youth services represent only one-quarter of 1 percent of Nassau's $2.79 billion budget. Nonetheless, members of both parties have focused on political deals over borrowing and legislative redistricting instead of the welfare of Long Island's most vulnerable. We cannot know the hearts of Mangano, Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), and other county legislators. We know them only by their actions. Regardless of what direction they may point fingers, those actions are hardhearted and cynical.

Our shared faith demands that our most vulnerable children must be a priority, not a bargaining chip. Our social safety net should be made as efficient as possible, but it should not be cut completely. The county's dire fiscal situation is all the more reason to invest in prevention -- by supporting, not slashing human services -- rather than hiring another dozen corrections officers, as legislators voted to do last month.

The budget under consideration today will shape the county we live in for the coming years. The investments and cuts we make are defining moral choices. As people of faith, in conversation with our congregations and communities, we urge the county executive and Legislature to give moral priority to programs that protect the dignity of the poor and vulnerable. We are compelled in scripture to care for "the widows and orphans," "the hungry and thirsting," to "lift up the lowly."

These are the Biblical priorities. What are Nassau County's?

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