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Harckham: No Compromise on County Child Care Funding

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Peter Harckham
Legislator Peter Harckham said there will be no compromise on county childcare funding.

Board of Legislators Democratic Majority Leader Peter Harckham last week rejected the Republicans’ overtures for a compromise in the simmering political and legal battle over whether to increase parent contributions to the county’s child care program.

Harckham, who called the GOP’s arguments that the program is running a $2.5 million shortfall this year a “political smokescreen,” said there is plenty of money to continue current funding levels even if the Republican’s estimates are accurate. He said the county’s Department of Social Services is currently running about a $7 million surplus in 2012, which can be transferred to other lines in the department including child care, while claiming that the state will be providing an additional $2.5 million that County Executive Rob Astorino has not publicly acknowledged.

“For one side to attempt to unilaterally change the law midway, without approval from the board, and then call for compromise after a judge has restrained their actions is cynical politics at its worst,” Harckham said.

He added that the Democrats compromised during budget deliberations last year when the percentage increased from 15 to 20 percent and any talks should wait until 2013 budget discussions.

The two sides are awaiting a ruling from state Supreme Court Justice Robert Neary that could resolve the contentious issue since the Democratic caucus launched litigation to maintain the 20 percent parent contribution for the remainder of the year. A decision is expected sometime this month.

Republicans, who want to raise the parents’ contribution to 35 percent, have maintained that funding for part of the program could run out as soon as July 31 unless a change is made. Earlier this year, County Executive Rob Astorino and DSS Commissioner Kevin McGuire asked the state for permission to increase parent contributions. The percentages are based on annual gross household income above the federal poverty level, which is currently $18,530 for a three-member family and $22,350 for a four-member family. The higher rates were to have been enacted on June 1.

Astorino, in an interview with The Examiner’s editors on June 28, said while he understands that the proposed increase would be a hardship on some families, economic reality calls for more money for the program to remain solvent. If New York City and other counties throughout the state can manage 35 percent contributions, parents in Westchester can do the same, he maintained.

“Either put more money into it so it’s funded properly or you can choose not to put more taxpayer dollars into it (but) you have to raise the parents’ share,” Astorino said. “But doing nothing is not an option.”

Republican Legislator John Testa said the county’s child care programs are funded three different ways. The one that is in most immediate jeopardy is Title XX, the county program that has 206 children currently enrolled. He hopes any interruption can be avoided.

“If there’s no funding for it in the budget than the program will end,” Testa said.

Of less concern is the Public Assistance Program, which has 620 children and is funded primarily by the federal government. Then there’sthe  low-income subsidy with about 2,800 children for families that earn between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

However, Harckham said there will be no compromise midyear because that was done during last year’s budget deliberations when the contributions increased from 15 to 20 percent. He charged that since Astorino took office he has declared war on child care, a foolish move since it helps working parents who might otherwise have to stay at home to care for their children.

“The Astorino Administration has gone after child care every year he’s been in office,” Harckham said.

Astorino countered that Westchester has been a generous county with the contribution at 15 percent for 2011, but can no longer afford that level.

“If there is no money then how do you fund the program?” Astorino asked. “One of the things we’ve been doing since Jan. 1, 2010, is putting an end to all the phony math. The problem is what it is and deal with it. To perpetuate the same old status quo, creative math and it’ll be what we want it to be has to come to an end and you can see it all over the place in different  parts of government.”

Democratic Legislator Michael Kaplowitz, who no longer caucuses with members of his party, said there are any number of compromises that could take place, including finding a percentage roughly midway between 20 and 35 percent. One pitfall is the possibility of the judge concluding that this matter should be resolved by legislators and refusing to rule, he said.

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