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Westchester County 2013 budget trims social services

NEWS 12 WESTCHESTER: There are no new taxes in the plan, but it calls for 126 layoffs. (Nov. 14, 2012)

The 2013 budget proposed by Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino on Wednesday keeps funding for social services flat at $550 million.

But escalating costs nonetheless led Astorino, a Republican, to propose slashing some social programs next year.

Those cuts are likely to stir controversy as the county Board of Legislators reviews Astorino's budget in the coming weeks.

"We fundamentally disagree about government helping those who are less fortunate and who are poor and vulnerable," said Legis. Lyndon William (D-Mount Vernon).

To bridge an $85 million shortfall next year, Astorino has proposed shedding 126 jobs, leaving other positions unfilled and floating $48 million in debt. But those are only the headline-grabbing parts of the spending plan, which includes a host of other measures to try to keep the county's finances in the black.

Astorino would cut $3 million in funding for three nonprofit neighborhood health centers in Ossining, Peekskill and Mount Vernon.

Astorino's communications director, Ned McCormack, said the cuts don't reflect the level of service the centers provide. Rather, the nonprofits have combined assets of $57 million and their top executives earn a total of nearly $1 million in annual salaries.

"They are in better financial shape than we are," McCormack said.

The groups' executives didn't return calls for comment.

But the Peekskill-based Hudson River HealthCare's website provides a snapshot of its CEO's duties. The website says chief executive Anne Kauffman Nolon has expanded the nonprofit from a single center in 1977 to a network of 12 facilities and other programs throughout the region. Staff in that time has grown from 12 to 400, the website claims. Patient visits have increased from 2,400 to 170,000 a year. And the nonprofit's budget was $28 million in 2005, compared with $125,000 at its founding.

Astorino's budget also would save $3 million by increasing the fees in the county's day care program. At present, low-income parents in the program pay according to a formula that charges them 15 percent of their income above the poverty level. Astorino would raise that rate to 35 percent, the maximum allowed under the law.

McCormack said the change was designed to make sure the program had enough to money to remain afloat. If its fees aren't increased, the whole thing could shut down, he said.

Astorino also proposed cutting the county's funding for the Cornell Cooperative Extension from $990,000 to $600,000.

Not every group faces cuts. Astorino would give an additional $50,000 to Legal Service of the Hudson Valley, a nonprofit organization that gives legal help on noncriminal issues for low-income people. The group now receives $1.7 million a year.

Asked why he was boosting the Legal Service but cutting elsewhere, Astorino on Wednesday said more clients have been approaching the group in recent years. "Their needs are up, unfortunately," he said.

The budget is now in the hands of Democrats, who have a majority on the Board of Legislators. They and their Republican colleagues need to approve the budget by Dec. 27.

In addition to committee meetings, where they'll ask commissioners about Astorino's proposed budget, lawmakers will offer three public hearings before approving the budget.

The hearings will take place Tuesday in Mamaroneck at the village Justice Court, 169 Mount Pleasant Ave.; at Cortlandt Town Hall at 1 Heady St. on Nov. 29; and in the Westchester County Center at 198 Central Ave. in White Plains on Dec. 5. The meetings will begin at 7 p.m.

Williams foresaw health center patients, parents who use county day care and others flocking to the hearings. "We're going to get a large turnout," he said.

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