Mayors, school officials, housing advocates, social workers and concerned citizens were among the 47 people who testified at Assemblyman George Latimer’s budget hearing on Thursday about the potential impacts of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's state budget proposals.
The four-hour hearing, which was held at the Port Chester Seniors Center, is an annual event the Assemblyman organizes to help him put a human face on the budget process as he and his fellow lawmakers grapple with a $10 billion deficit.
"This is more about the qualitative than the quantitative," Latimer said.
"If we don't do things like this, then we are playing into a system where a handful of people make the decisions and have no regard for what people have to say."
On Feb. 1, Cuomo unveiled an executive budget that slashes state aid to schools by $1.5 billion, terminates 9,800 state workers unless unions concede $450 million in savings, and cuts Medicaid funding by $1 billion. Coupled with a proposal to eliminate state laws that would drive up health care and education spending 13 percent this year, the total cuts equal $2.85 billion in each area. In all, the proposal closes a $10 billion budget gap without raising taxes, borrowing or increasing fees.
More than half of the 47 speakers Thursday came out to protest two key items on Cuomo's agenda that they said would devastate local school districts: the proposed cuts to school aid and a cap on property tax increases.
"The cuts are so large that it will send our schools spiraling into reverse gear, not only preventing future growth but erasing the progress we are so proud of in Westchester," said Robin Willig, the president of the Blind Brook Federation of Teachers.
School officials from Mamaroneck, Port Chester, Rye and Harrison said that the drastic slash in state aid, coupled with a tax cap that places a limit on how much money school districts can raise, would inevitably lead to teacher layoffs, overcrowded classrooms and the elimination of special education and extracurricular programs.
"The state cannot cut aid to schools, place an artificial cap on school budgets, and then raise academic requirements for all students and expect the now-eviscerated district, without quality teachers or supervisors, to carry that out," said Harrison High School PTA President Lynn Kaplan.
The 2-percent cap, which Cuomo has touted as a vehicle for profound changes in New York's spending habits, has already been passed in the Senate. Latimer said the Assembly would likely take up the measure once the budget is finalized in April.
The proposal has drawn the ire of both school districts and local government officials, some of whom testified Thursday that the cap would be viable only if packaged with significant relief from retirement contributions, health care costs and labor laws that give unions the upper hand in contract negotiations.
"The tax cap without mandate relief is disingenuous and just shifts the problem," said Port Chester Mayor Dennis Pilla. "We are going to be making decisions about laying off police and firefighters."
Rye Mayor Doug French said his city could live with a proposed 2- percent cut in state aid to municipalities, but asked Latimer and his colleagues not to deepen those cuts. He also said the state should consider rolling back a number of onerous mandates, including a prevailing wage law that requires local governments to pay union wages to non-unionized workers.
"Seventy-five percent of our budget is beyond our control," French said.
A number of speakers also called for lawmakers to extend a tax surcharge on New Yorkers who earn more than $200,000 a year. The measure, which has raised $11.5 billion since 2009, is set to expire Dec. 31.
"To force people to fight desperately over crumbs when the people at the very top are getting incredible breaks that they don't need is a world turned upside down," said Elizabeth Saenger, a Mamaroneck resident and retired teacher.
"We all need to have good public education, good public health care and roads and bridges that don't fall down, and we can get them by making the whole tax system more fair," she added.
Other speakers noted that the top 2 percent of earners in the state control more than half of the income, and that the state's tax rate on high earners has been drastically reduced over the last few decades.
But advocates of extending the tax are likely to be disappointed; Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, have vowed not to support the extension.
Two speakers from the New York School for the Deaf railed against a proposal to eliminate so-called "4201s"—state-funded schools for the deaf, blind and severely disabled—by converting them into private special ed schools. The move would likely force hundreds of disabled students into mainstream classrooms around the state.
"Local districts are not at all prepared for the influx of these kids with very specific educational needs," said Jackie Thorne, a teacher at the School for the Deaf.
"When our schools are properly funded our kids do amazing things; when they are in a mainstream setting struggling to communicate with their peers and teachers, they become isolated and depressed.”
Speakers on Thursday also spoke out against a proposed 50-percent cut to community housing programs that provide mediation, foreclosure and eviction prevention and information on renters' rights to local residents, and a 10-percent cut to SUNY and CUNY schools.
But not everyone was upset. Rye resident Bob Zahm said his biggest problem with Cuomo's budget is that it doesn't cut enough, and ticked off a number of proposals he agreed with, including the consolidation of state agencies and closing underused prisons. Zahm was the only speaker who argued in favor of allowing the tax on the wealthy to expire.
"The current surcharge is driving jobs, capital and employers out of the state," he said.
The forum served as a local version of the budget hearings taking place in Albany throughout February and March in which officials from around the state lobby the legislature for more funding. The budget is required by law to be passed by April 1.
Latimer said he would compile the copious comments into a report that would be submitted to the Assembly Ways & Means Committee. His office will accept written testimony until Feb. 25.