Support for Vulnerable Populations at Heart of State Budget Forum

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his State of the State address last month that promised deals with combatting COVID-19 while rebuilding New York once the pandemic ends.

Appeals to Westchester’s state Senate contingent to help the county’s most vulnerable residents and the organizations that serve them was the focus of last Thursday’s live-streamed budget forum.

The state legislature has begun deliberations on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $192 billion executive budget for Fiscal Year 2022. New York is facing a budget deficit of about $15 billion as state officials hope that relief from Washington will arrive this year.

Close to 40 speakers over two hours highlighted the direst concerns facing many residents and pleaded for help as tens of thousands of low- and middle-income families have been ravaged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tom Gabriel, president and CEO of United Way of Westchester and Putnam, said Cuomo’s failure to include the 211-call center in his proposed budget will have severe consequences. The center connects residents in 24 New York counties to the programs and services they need.

In 2020, referrals ballooned in the region because of the pandemic to 4.9 million, up from 1.8 million in 2019, Gabriel said. He requested about $2.8 million for the call center.

“Without help, 211 will not be able to help your constituents for much longer,” Gabriel told the six senators. “We want to continue to be the safety net for New Yorkers but we need our partners in government, like you, who always have sustained support and made good on our priorities.”

Irvington resident Kamran Saliani said with more than 40 percent of New York residents facing food insecurity and Cuomo having cut Medicaid by $2.2 billion in 2017 and underfunded schools in 2019 by $3.9 billion, it is time to ask society’s wealthy to contribute more.

She said components of the Invest in Our New York Act, a package of six bills that includes taxing capital gains at the same rate as earned income, instituting a billionaire’s tax and adopting a more progressive income tax on those earning more than $300,000, is estimated to raise as much as $50 billion.

Theo Oshiro, deputy director and managing executive director of Make the Road NY, which assists the immigrant population, also called on the legislature to enact funding for excluded workers and COVID-19 housing relief along with the Invest in Our New York Act.

“Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers that are ineligible for unemployment benefits, largely due to immigration status or incarceration, have now gone 10 months without any support,” Oshiro said. “They can’t wait any longer. The fund for excluded workers bill would deliver long overdue relief.”

Ossining resident Lutonya Russell-Humes, the executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of New Rochelle, said more funds are needed to go toward basic needs of food, shelter, educational and essential support services.

She called on the legislators to restore $5 million for Advantage Afterschool, which provides social and emotional support to youngsters whose families have faced unemployment, underemployment and eviction because of COVID-19, pass the Childhood Poverty Reduction Act and ensure that every child has access to high-speed internet access for remote learning.

“I understand the constraints of the state’s budget; however, I ask that we don’t balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable,” Russell-Humes said.

Other speakers addressed more equitable education funding, support for the arts and programs for the elderly.

State Sen. Peter Harckham (D-Lewisboro), one of the senators who attended the forum, said the needs are great and the resources stretched, but pledged to ensure that any federal relief funds supplement, and not supplant, state funding.

State Sen. Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers) said the contingent is dedicated to helping the population that needs the most assistance.

“We all know, those of us on this call, what a tough year this has been and what a tough budget situation we are presented with,” Mayer said. “As advocates, you have done an extraordinary job of making your voices heard and I think we have much to be proud of for being there to listen.”

A second forum is scheduled for Tuesday from 5 to 8 p.m. Registration to testify is at full capacity, but those who are interested can e-mail testimony to the delegation at westchesterdelegation@nysenate.gov. The forum will be live-streamed on Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ Facebook page.

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