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Cuts Won’t Cut It

Proposed Albany County budget would axe one in five positions, hike taxes 14.9 percent and unload nursing home

Share the pain. That’s about the best Albany County Executive Michael Breslin could say about the 2011 preliminary budget he unveiled last week. The $549.5 million budget can be viewed online at albanycounty.com. The Legislature has until Dec. 10 to go over it and make changes.

If the budget passes as is, county taxes would go up 14.9 percent. That means a taxpayer with a property valued at $150,000 would pay $75 to $125 more next year than this year, depending on the municipality where they live.

And county employees could be ringing in the new year with pink slips if too few of them accept early retirement packages by Dec. 31. One out of five jobs in the county would be eliminated either through early retirement or layoffs. A total of 511 jobs are on the chopping block countywide.

The lion’s share are at the Albany County Nursing Home, which would be aggressively marketed, and hopefully, sold by the close of next year, Breslin said. “For years, I have been an advocate of getting long-term care out into the community,” he said. “There are others who can do it much less expensively.”

The 500-bed facility is only half full. Legislators blocked Breslin from closing the existing home last year. This year, Breslin wrote in his budget announcement, “The taxpayers of Albany County can only take so much. We must take action and be out of the nursing home business by the end of 2011.”

So far, early retirement offers have been extended to 229 county employees. Workers also will be asked to start picking up 10 percent of their health insurance premiums, if the budget passes unchanged.

“This is a painful budget and I have crafted a proposal that shares the pain as equitably as possible—no county agency has gone untouched,” said Breslin.

There wasn’t an open seat left in the Albany County Legislative chambers on Tuesday. Nearly 30 people spoke in protest of the proposed budget cuts. Some choked up. Most objected to Breslin’s plans for the nursing home and the Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center. Nursing home supporters said private facilities will refuse to take the hardest cases. Many people cannot afford at-home, round-the-clock nursing care, they said.

An 85-year-old resident of the county facility said her husband, who has severe Alzheimer’s, lives there too. “I could not possibly take care of him at home,” she said. “He could break my arm or kill me very easily. Please reconsider. . . . For some of us, this will be the second and third time we had to face moving to a new nursing home, not by our own choice.”

The nursing home isn’t the only facility Breslin wants gone. His preliminary budget also proposes shutting down the county’s substance abuse program. Breslin said there are plenty of other local programs—mostly nonprofits—doing the same work.

“Although Albany County is rich with substance abuse programs, they all require that you have insurance,” argued 25-year county mental health worker Kathryn Marchino. “No substance abuse program takes Medicare.”

During a break, Legislator Bryan Clenahan responded to the public outcry.

“Maybe early retirement could be more widely applied,” he said. “Last year, we were given a budget proposal with about 120 layoffs, the closing of the nursing home, and a four percent tax hike. We went with the four percent and kept the nursing home open.

“I’m hoping to maintain the nursing home, I’m hoping to maintain the Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center and I hope to avoid layoffs. It’s going be tough, but I think if we dig in and leave no stone unturned, we can find a lot of potential savings.”

The big picture is grim, Shawn Morse, Chairman of the Legislature’s Audit and Finance Committee, said in a recent interview. “House sales are down, sales tax revenues are down, people are not spending,” he said. “You have no idea the pickle that we’re in.”

Breslin hacked more than $24 million out of the budget and drew $15 million from reserves to balance out a revenue loss of almost $39.8 million. The county expects a $7.1 million drop in sales tax revenue and $15.7 million less in federal aid. A $1.9 million decline in state aid also is expected.

To make matters worse, the expiration of the federal economic stimulus package also effectively creates a $5.2 million shortfall. And Medicaid will give the county $1.5 million less in reimbursement for mental health services.

Times are tough. Revenue is down, but need is up, so there is more demand on the County Department of Social Services. Since November of 2008, the county has seen a 12 percent increase in Medicaid cases, a 35 percent increase in food stamp use and a 6 percent rise in people who need temporary assistance.

If all of that isn’t enough to depress you, Breslin anticipates a budget gap of $18 to $23 million in 2012 for many of the same reasons.

Ironically, when asked about the biggest problems facing Albany County, Breslin answered, “Ultimately, the first one is jobs. When you look at the people we serve, the single most common thread is the lack of income, the lack of a job.”

—Laurie Lynn Fischer


Beating Bullies

Legislators and educators discuss how to prevent the harassment of LGBT teens

 

“Regardless of legal outcomes, our hope is that our family’s personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity.” This statement was released by the parents of Tyler Clementi, the 19-year-old Rutgers student who was just one of five students to recently commit suicide as a result of harsh anti-gay sentiments brought on by peers. In the midst of recent coverage surrounding these suicides, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign assembled a panel of teachers, guidance counselors and LGBT advocates to speak in front of an audience of concerned students, parents and the public at large. The meeting took place in the Gannett auditorium at Skidmore College last Thursday, where the panel discussed the goals to get an anti- discrimination bill in motion.

In charge of the assembly was Amy Pollard, the Regional Representative of the Upper Hudson Valley for the Gillibrand campaign. She insisted that the most pressing concern of the legislation is to amend Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA) would also work to cut off federal funding from schools that fail to report bullying or fail to meet the standards that have been put in place by the Department of Education’s Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA). Everyone on the panel, as well as all present members of the audience, agreed that deaths similar to Tyler Clementi’s could be avoided in the future if swift action is taken by school districts.

They say pushing for anti-discrimination legislation is a timely step in the right direction but the process is long. Last month, Governor Paterson signed the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) which means that New York has now joined the other nine states across America in enacting legislation that will provide protection from bullying based on students’ perceived sexual orientation. DASA, however, does not go into effect until 2012, and bullying-related deaths in schools has been steadily increasing over the past few years.

“Seventy-two percent of kids polled admitted to engaging in cyber bullying,” remarked Estelle Kline, a senior at Shaker High School and former leader of her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club. “That’s a big number.”

With the accessibility of social networking sites, the prevalence and severity of threats made has become even more inescapable; students sometimes turn to drastic measures.

Discussion at the forum focused on legislative action being key if strides are going to be made against bullying. However, attendants also agreed that educating teachers and students on ways to stand up for and defend LGBT kids who are being bullied is crucial as well. Wayne Manchester, a math teacher and faculty member involved in South Glens Falls High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance turned his concerns over to the audience.

“Teachers need to set the tone. Kids must hear that the verbal abuse is wrong.”

Many teachers find that because there are no specific or enumerated guidelines set in place yet for such situations, they do not know how exactly to diffuse an altercation between students or what lines they might accidentally cross in doing so.

The memories of the students who have lost their lives as a result of such homophobic bullying will stand as a reminder as legislators and educators try to prevent further tragedy.

—Dana Kowalski




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