Depending on whom you ask in Westchester County government, the state of social services is either shaky or sound, as Democrats from the Board of Legislators and County Executive Rob Astorino's administration are clashing over the adequacy of services provided.
Democrats contend that the need for various social services has steadily risen since 2009, yet support for them has not kept pace. In particular, they singled out subsizied child care, support for the homeless and nutritional assistance.
“Even as our economic picture had improved, many of our residents are still in great need with basic necessities like shelter and food,” said legislative Majority Leader Peter Harckham, whose district includes Mount Kisco, in a press release. “The trends we see in the data that has been collected present a picture that should concern all of residents and business owners: The need for social services has increased over the past four years while funding has decreased.”
In terms of demand, the Democrats contend the number of homeless families has risen over the last four years by 40 percent, day care support need has risen by nearly 15 percent and that caseloads for food assistance are up by 53 percent. On child care, Democrats argue that there were 3,152 slots in 2009, which rose to 3,615 for 2012 and are being cut to 3,477.
Democrats also contend that Astorino, a Mount Pleasant Republican, has presided over a parental contribution share for daycare that has skyrocketed by 164 percent since 2009. Meanwhile, Democrats claim, the cost for the subsidized program has only risen by six percent over the same period, and that Astorino has misleadingly said that the daycare program ran out of money last year despite winding up with a $3.7 million surplus. Additionally, Democrats argue that Astorino has frozen Title XX daycare applications and it has seen an 88-percent drop in the program since 2009, along with a scholarship program for families who don't qualify for related subsidies having been axed.
County Legislator Alfreda Williams (D-Greenburgh), in a statement, contended that parents would turn to unregulated daycare operations due to the loss of financial aid.
For daycare, Democrats claim that the average March cost four years ago was $91, versus $240 for now.
On homelessness, Democrats contend that the rate of homeless families has risen by 40 percent in four years, with a projected increase from 3,588 to 4,980. Meanwhile, a related program to prevention home evictions has flat funding, Democrats claim.
On the issue of nutritional support, Democrats argue that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has seen higher demand over four years, but that the Food Bank of Westchester and the Coalition for the Hungry and Homeless will not get funding this year.
“Westchester cannot be a county that turns its back on residents who need help,” legislative Chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers), in a press release.
Jenkins, who is running against Astorino in a county executive bid, added “With all of the resources and wealth available to be able to feed our hungry and house our homeless, we should not be shirking our moral duty in this regard. It’s time to reverse these disturbing trends before neglect turns to regret.”
Astorino's camp hit back with a rebuttal from Kevin McGuire, commissioner of the county's Department of Social Services (DSS). He stated that the budget for DSS has increased from $542 million in 2010 (the start of Astorino's term) to $559 million, despite cuts in federal and state aid.
On child care, McGuire argued that available slots have actually risen to 3,816, and that the subsidy program and the Title XX program are still open to those who financially qualify. On the parental share of financial support, McGuire contends that the level, which has risen from 15 percent at the start of Astorino's term to 27 percent now, is still lower than what New York City parents pay and that many counties in the state have 35-percent shares. McGuire stated that the cost increase is necessary for the program's solvency, adding that $1.67 million more was spent on subsidies last year than what was budgeted. Meanwhile, McGuire stated that actual Title XX costs in 2012 were $220,000 higher than budgeted.
McGuire also disputed the math that Democrats used for average child care costs, contending that $240 per year share only applies to a family of seven or more people that earns at least $41,000 annually. By contrast, he stated that a family of three that has $24,352 annually, or 133 percent of the federal poverty line, has only seen an increase of two dollars since Astorino took office in January 2010.
On homelessness, McGuire stated that the amount of families affected is only up by 10 percent over the last four years, and that the 40-percent average, a sum of 12 monthly averages that's used for budgeting, does not equate to an actual number of families impacted. Since taking office, McGuire stated, Astorino has reduced shelter space because of empty beds, the result of work in getting people into permanent housing quicker.
On food assistance, McGuire stated that both the food bank and the coalition will receive $72,000 for this year, the same amount as they got for last year. For SNAP in general, McGuire contended that the value of its related benefits has increased by $153.4 million since the start of Astorino's term.
McGuire added that Westchester also applied for additional SNAP aid due to Hurricane Sandy—the only jurisdiction outside of New York City—and that $3.4 million extra was authorized.