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Hundreds in Brookhaven protest proposed state cuts

Nearly 500 people showed up Tuesday for a hearing in Brookhaven on Gov. David A. Paterson's proposed budget cuts, many of them asking for schools and services for the disabled to be spared.

At the start of the 5 1/2-hour session, two-thirds of the audience were disabled people and their advocates. Paterson wants to eliminate $65 million for group homes and education programs that help the disabled live independently.

The cut would help close this year's $3 billion deficit and reduce next year's by $2 billion. The hearing at Brookhaven Town Hall was the second held by the State Senate to gauge public reaction to midyear trims to the 2009-10 budget, which totals $131.8 billion.

Saundra Gumerove of AHRC Nassau, which helps 3,000 developmentally disabled people, said the governor's plan would precipitate "a human tragedy." She and others predicted the shuttering of group homes, day care programs and other services would mean some disabled would be forced to live in state institutions.

"The governor's proposals put our children at risk," she said, gesturing to her 28-year daughter, Lauren Bernstein, who lives in a group home. "We don't want to go back to the age of institutions, where people were simply warehoused."

The reduction in state money would result in the loss of about $160 million in federal aid.

Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn), chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, responded that Paterson's deficit reduction plan was just "one approach; we believe there are several."

Referring to aid cuts for school districts and hospitals, Sen. Brian X. Foley (D-Blue Point), said, "our residents don't need increases in health care costs and property taxes."

School superintendents and parents decried the midyear slashing of education aid, which would cost local schools $123 million. They predicted the firing of 1,500 teachers and staff and suspension of art and music, among others.

Florence Capers, a parent from Wyandanch who is active in the Alliance for Quality Education, implored the State Legislature not "to break the promises made to our children." She then stood up and broke a pencil, joined by six others who did the same.

While most of the speakers adamantly opposed Paterson's budget-cutting plan, supporters of a cap on yearly hikes in school property taxes praised the inclusion of limits on future state spending.

Andrea Vecchio, a leader of Long Islanders for Educational Reform, said, "it's time for our elected officials to put aside differences and to join with Governor Paterson in making whatever cuts must be made to bring us back from the brink."

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