By Jill Colvin
MANHATTAN — The City Council is gearing up to fight back against the mayor's deep new budget cuts that would slash senior, youth, children's and fire services.
On Monday morning, the council began a series of hearings on the impact of the $1.6 billion cuts, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last month as part of his efforts to close a multi-billion-dollar shortfall for the current fiscal year.
While council members said they know the city needs to cut costs as revenue shrinks and pension payments soar, they argue that some of the cuts are unacceptable, putting the city's most vulnerable at risk.
"We fully understand that the budget must be cut this year," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn before the hearings began. But, she said, "there are cuts we don't agree with, cuts that we think simply go too far and end up hurting the most vulnerable New Yorkers who need to be protected during tough economic times like this."
Mark Page, director of the City's Office of Management and Budget, painted a bleak picture of New York's financial future and said the current cuts are just the tip of the iceberg.
"Unfortunately I think the reality that we're facing is likely to be considerably worse," he said, noting that the projected $2.4 billion deficit does not include additional potential cuts in Albany, which could slash $2 billion in expected aide.
One of the key points of contention is $12.5 million in cuts to the Department of Youth and Community Development. The cuts would greatly reduce funding for runaway homeless youth drop-in centers and eliminate funding for street outreach contracts, saving the city about $570,000 this year and $330,000 in each of the following three.
"It absolutely sickens me," said Brooklyn Councilman Lew Fidler who chairs the Council's Youth Services Committee, noting that the cuts will slash almost one in six shelter beds for runaway youth.
"That’s just beyond cruel," he said. "We have so many miles to go that taking one step backwards is unacceptable."
Another sticking point for many are cuts to the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), which is set to lose nearly $25 million dollars and 294 staffers this year — more layoffs than any department except cultural affairs.
The cuts include 80 child protective specialist supervisors, who investigate potential cases of child abuse, according to Annabel Palma, the Council’s General Welfare Chair.
"I am extremely alarmed about the serious negative impacts that less service and support will have on our city’s most vulnerable populations," Palma said in a statement.
Quinn agreed, telling reporters, "We will simply not stand by and allow cuts to go through that could put children's lives at risk."
Page defended the cuts, saying they were made with "considerable care" in close consultation with the department.
In the weeks since the new cuts were announced, members and agency heads have been meeting behind closed doors, setting priorities and formulating their own list of alternative cuts.
They have come up with $130 million in alternatives, Quinn said, to make up for funds they'd like to return. Proposals include cutting $7 million out of the the Department of Sanitation’s budget, slashing their public information budget and eliminating their enforcement program.
Quinn also suggested cutting the Department of Transportation's meter collection and other inspection staff.
The problem for members is that shaping the budget will take more than a gavel or votes.
Even if the City Council objects to the plan, the mayor doesn’t need members' support to pass the cuts, which he can do on his own.
Quinn said that her staff have been "in constant conversation" with the mayor's and seemed optimistic that he would be open to negotiation.
But the mayor made clear he has no plans to budge.
Asked about Quinn's concerns, he said, "She is right. We’re going to have to have changes. These cuts don't go to address more than maybe a third of what we think the problem is," he said.
"We’re going to be going in the other direction."
But Quinn, who has come under criticism in the past for aligning her interests closely with the mayor, has said the council also has the power to make Bloomberg's life difficult if he fails to negotiate.
"We have a lot of ways we can stop things from happening that we don’t want to have happen even if there isn’t a direct vote on it," Quinn previously said.