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Suffolk officials question disparity in state child-care funding

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks with children

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone talks with children who are in daycare at a press conference to announce changes to the current child care subsidy in Huappauge on March 29, 2013. Credit: Newsday / Photographer: Ed Betz

Nassau County has received a $9 million increase in funding to help low-income working families pay for child care -- the largest increase of any county in the state outside of New York City -- while Suffolk received a hike of only $581,000, records show.

The disparity has led social services officials and advocates in Suffolk to call for changes to how the state doles out money, which is based primarily on past enrollment.

They argue that the system doesn't accurately reflect need, noting that when Suffolk had federal stimulus money in 2010 and 2011, it was able to boost enrollment to levels equaling Nassau's.

John Nieves, spokesman for the Suffolk Department of Social Services, said the funding method should be changed "to not unfairly affect Suffolk residents."

State officials note that Nassau puts extra county funding into the program, allowing the county to offer the child care benefit to more families. Last year, Nassau contributed $23.5 million to the program, and Suffolk provided $3 million.

The program is designed to keep low-income parents in the workforce by paying a portion of their day-care costs.

The state uses each county's average annual enrollment over the past five years to determine funding.

Nassau's state funding jumped from $35,078,346 in 2013-2014 to $44,065,328 in 2014-15, an increase of 26 percent. Suffolk's funding rose by 2 percent, from $30,783,444 in 2013-14 to $31,364,169 in 2014-15, a rise of $580,725.

In 2009-13, Nassau had an annual average enrollment of 5,143, while Suffolk had an average of 4,290, state records show. Nassau's enrollment grew by 17 percent during the period, while Suffolk's rose by 9 percent.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who is running for re-election against Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, announced April 30 that child care funding will increase by $55 million to $794 million statewide this year. Last year, the program received only a $1 million bump.

Nassau's large jump in funding this year was due to Cuomo's increase in funding statewide, said a spokeswoman for the Office of Children and Family Services. Nassau had more children enrolled in the child care program over the previous five-year period, and its "claims are significantly higher than Suffolk's," the spokeswoman said.

Nassau Social Services spokeswoman Karen Garber said in a statement that the "department follows the regulations of the State and will not comment on guidelines set by lawmakers."

Despite the overall increase in funding, 16 of the state's 62 counties saw decreases this year. Outside of Nassau and Suffolk, other counties had an average increase of 5 percent, state records show.

Enrollment in the program in Nassau has increased at a relatively steady rate since 2009. The county over the past five years has directed an average of $26 million a year to bolster the program, but did not use stimulus money.

The record in Suffolk is more erratic.

Suffolk used federal stimulus dollars to boost enrollment from 4,187 children in 2010 to 5,145 in 2011.

But as the stimulus program subsided, Suffolk in late 2011 and in 2012 dropped about 2,000 children from the program. That sparked rallies at county government headquarters in Hauppauge, where parents and child care providers called for increased funding.

"While Suffolk County's overall population has leveled off, we are experiencing an increase in the number and percentage of low-income families," Suffolk Social Services Commissioner John O'Neill wrote in a Jan. 24 letter to state officials requesting a change in the funding method.

"The need is coming in at a higher level in Suffolk -- we're still a growing county; we're seeing . . . more low-income families come to the area," said Janet Walerstein, executive director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk County, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of parents and child care providers.

Suffolk had an annual average poverty rate of 6.1 percent between 2008 and 2012, compared with 5.8 percent in Nassau, according to the most recent Census figures available. In 2012, about 102,000 Suffolk residents lived below the federal poverty line, compared to 87,868 in Nassau, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures available.

"This formula works in Nassau County, but there's an issue there for Suffolk and those other counties not seeing increases," said Jan Barbieri, executive director of the Child Care Council of Nassau, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of parents and child care providers.Suffolk said its additional $581,000 in funding this year will go toward paying scheduled increases in payments to day-care providers that will total about $770,000.

Nassau plans to use its additional $9 million to offset some of its contribution to the program, Garber said.

To qualify for the program in Suffolk, a family of four's income cannot exceed 150 percent of the federal poverty line, or $35,775. In Nassau, the eligibility level is 200 percent of the poverty line, or $47,700. Eligibility levels are determined by each county.

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