Assemblyman George Latimer held his 6th annual community hearing on the state's impending 2010-2011 budget Thursday, listening as several residents criticized the state's proposed cuts on everything from school aid to long-term care.
About 30 people attended the hearing, which was held from 4 to 8 p.m. at The Osborn retirement community in Rye.
Latimer said he holds these community hearings because it allows him to hear residents' concerns about the budget and include these opinions in budget talks in Albany. The state will likely approve its budget in April.
"This is the nub of what a small d democracy is about. It's specifics and it's hard," Latimer said. "For you to understand your interests, you have to know what the specifics are."
With New York State facing a $750 million deficit, Governor David Paterson has proposed several cuts in state aid for a myriad of programs, proposals to generate additional state revenue through taxes on cigarettes and soda, and a proposal to allow supermarkets to sell wine, which the state says will generate $93 million this fiscal year and $54 million in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.
The latter proposal generated the most ire during the community budget hearing Thursday.
Tony Russo, who owns Aries Fine Wine and Spirits in White Plains, said the proposal would force many wine distributors to close.
"As a small businessman, I and all of my colleagues are 100 percent against this," Russo said. "We feel that, number one, it would be a death knell to all of our small businesses."
Russo said the move to license an an extra 20,000 outlets, including supermarkets, delis and bodegas, would also increase underage drinking violations.
"We have a stake in the community and we're not going to take a chance on selling alcohol for a small profit," he said.
Roger Maxon, owner of Varmax Liquor Pantry in Port Chester, agreed.
"I currently employ 22 people and provide them with benefits and health coverage. I highly doubt that a consumer would see 22 people in the aisle of a box store or grocery outlet to help them," Maxon said. " I doubt that these places would even hire one person to do the job I would be forced to layoff."
Another issue that drew widespread condemnation was the state's proposed cuts to long-term care providers.
The state has said it wants to reform Medicaid reimbursement and issue a one percent increase in assessments for revenue generated by nursing homes and other providers.
Rita Morgan, administrator of the Sarah Neuman Center in Mamaroneck, said her nursing home would lose about $670,000 if the state approves measures to change Medicaid reimbursement and increase assessments. The center would lose an additional $33,000 in funds if the state follows through on a measure to mandate shorter holding periods for beds of residents who are sent to the hospital.
Mark Zwerger, CEO of The Osborn, said his facility will also face steep cuts. Long-term providers will endure $400 million in cuts that will affect services for the elderly if the state doesn't alter its budget, Zwerger said.
"The reality is that we will not be able to transform the system of long-term care without first stabilizing the funding stream for providers," he said.
Education cuts were another hot-button topic at the hearing.
Local libraries are facing $2.4 million in cuts, which will affect not just the library system, but also job seekers who are increasingly using the library's free Internet service to search and apply for jobs, according to Susan Benton, director of Mamaroneck Public Library.
"When the economy gets really bad, you see so many job hunters at the library," she said. "I hope you will help us defeat this cut in library spending," Benton said to Latimer.
Edward Fox, a member of the Rye City School District's Board of Education, said the district is already dealing with declining income from decreased property and sales tax revenues, and that further cuts in state aid and state mandated programs, which the district is required to fund, will only worsen the problem.
He said the district can't keep dipping into its reserves to close the funding gap.
"The state also has a rainy day fund and I haven't heard the governor talk about using those funds." Fox said. "It's not like we have all sorts of money laying around."
The cuts in state aid aren't limited to elementary and secondary schools, state colleges and universities also could lose millions in funding. Governor Paterson's current plan calls for more than $74 million in cuts to the Tuition Assistance Program, as well as tuition increases.
"New York State should make affordable higher education a priority," said Estaban Valerio, a junior at SUNY Purchase who spoke at the hearing. "Public higher education is a safe, smart investment, even in a recession."