Monday, June 7, 2010

New York City AIDS Cut Protested

Roughly ten protesters briefly interrupted a City Council budget hearing to object to the elimination of nearly 250 positions in the city’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration.

“Have some guts, no housing cuts,” they yelled in unison at the June 7 hearing before a banner they displayed was snatched away by guards and they were quickly hustled out of City Hall.

All of the protesters were from Housing Works, the AIDS services agency that has aggressively battled the city over funding in the courts and on the streets.

Facing a shortfall of $4.9 billion in the city’s $63 billion budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins on July 1, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed eliminating 248 case managers from the current 850 in the AIDS unit to save $4.2 million in the $8.8 billion Human Resources Administration budget. The AIDS unit is part of the administration.

In prior years, the mayor and City Council have engaged in a ritual in which the mayor proposes cuts that are then restored, with much posturing, by the council. The surplus cash and one-time revenue saving measures that closed those earlier budget gaps are largely gone. The state budget, which supplies 18 percent of the city’s revenues, is two months late and lawmakers in Albany do not appear to be near closing the $7.4 billion gap in the state’s $139 billion budget. The city and state anticipate budget gaps for the next several years.

“Not only are we faced with putting together a reasonable budget for 2011, but we also need to have some awareness of our need to maintain an acceptable level of services going forward,” Mark Page, director of the city’s Office of Management and Budget, told the council’s Committee on Finance just before the protest began.

Complicating the proposed cut is a 1997 law enacted by the City Council that required the AIDS unit, among a number of mandates, to maintain a ratio of one case manager for 34 clients. That ratio was litigated in a 1995 lawsuit brought in federal court by Housing Works which won a ruling in 2001 requiring the city to follow the 1997 law.

The case managers enroll people with AIDS in food stamp, Medicaid, housing, and other programs at the AIDS unit. While private AIDS groups offer many services to their clients, only the city case managers can link people with AIDS to government benefits.

An additional complication this year is that Housing Works has already threatened to sue if the city eliminates the case manager positions and some council members may decide to not fight the cut thinking that Housing Works will prevail later in court.

“The thing is anything could happen in court,” said Kristin Goodwin, director of New York City Policy and Organizing at Housing Works, after being tossed out of City Hall. “If that’s the back up plan, it’s bad idea.”

While Housing Works believes that some council members will oppose the cut now, it is not clear that the council will refuse to approve the budget if it remains.

“We know that there are folks who are going to fight it hard in negotiations, but we don’t have commitments on the vote,” Goodwin said. “Our expectation is they will tell the mayor they’re not going to sign, it’s illegal.”

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