BUSINESS

Budget Woes Threaten Vital Services In New York City: 'When Parents Hear About This, They Start To Cry'

01/07/2011 04:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NEW YORK -- The children at Strong Place day care in Brooklyn can recognize a Van Gogh. They can discuss the effects of acid rain. Some of these preschool-aged kids can even read.

But in July, if New York City sticks to its current plan, this learning will end. Strong Place is one of 16 city-funded day care centers slated for closure under mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to plug a budget hole of more than $3 billion. That Strong Place provides a crucial service for low-income residents of the community, with a four-decade-long record of educating young children, doesn't matter. It, and others like it, must go.

"When parents hear about this, they start to cry," said Age Pjetergjoka, the bookkeeper at Strong Place. "We take care of kids that really need help."

In the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Depression, cities across the nation are struggling to compensate for wounded tax revenue, which in many cases isn't enough to fund even the most basic of services. New York City's budget is in relatively strong shape, thanks in part to rounds of cuts Bloomberg has been implementing since before the crisis struck. But even here, as deficits remain, the city must continue the bitter process of trimming services wherever it can, squeezing savings from groups that shelter the homeless, investigate domestic abuse and provide families with day care.

In November, Bloomberg proposed his latest round of cuts, which included carving more than $61 million from children's services over the next two years. This week, the city council reached an agreement with the mayor to restore a portion of these cuts. But the 16 day care centers, which were targeted under an earlier plan, remain on the chopping block.

"If this closes, that's it," said R. Ramos, 27, a mother whose child is enrolled at Strong Place, and who declined to give her full first name because she works for the city. "I can't take another childcare leave of absence."

To the energetic teachers and loyal parents of Strong Place, the cuts seem haphazard, and supremely unfair. The Administration for Children's Services, one of the city agencies that determine where the mayor's cuts will fall, targets programs, not providers. This means the cuts land across the board, shuttering a range of providers, seemingly regardless of their proven success.

As part of a guiding principle that risks sounding contradictory, ACS says its priority is to ensure the well-being of the city's most vulnerable residents, not the well-being of the groups that serve them.

"Our top priority is always to minimize disruption to children," said ACS spokesperson Elysia Murphy, in a statement. "We have been working with families since the summer to identify alternative child care programs to transfer the children."

But parents at Strong Place say other options won't exist. Their situation is unusually dire, partially because what they currently have is unusually valuable. Of the 16 day care centers slated for closure in the city, 11 are in Brooklyn, and five are in or around Strong Place's community board district.

The reason for this seeming unevenness isn't clear. The staff at Strong Place say ACS sees their location, around the corner from the upscale streets of the Cobble Hill neighborhood, as gentrified, and able to sustain cutbacks. For some residents, that may be. But others depend on public day care in order to stay afloat. The 12.6-acre housing project across the street from Strong Place, and the storefronts that line Hoyt Street, belie any notion that upper middle-class comfort is uniform.

In a budget proposal last year, the city estimated that 1,150 children were enrolled in the 16 day care centers that are set to be closed. The savings, principally from cutting rent payments, would reach about $16 million each year.

"I don't know how all these children are going to be absorbed," said Norma Martin, assistant executive director of Brooklyn Community Services, a non-sectarian agency. "Parents might quit their jobs or drop out of school."

Despite the city's promise to help parents find other day care providers, parents say that simply isn't possible. At Strong Place, parents of the 54 children currently enrolled often pay just $20 a month. In many neighborhoods, where few public day care centers exist, finding alternatives means enduring a long commute. Private day care, another option, is prohibitively expensive: The cost, which can reach more than $20,000 a year, could equal a family's income.

"My wife would stay at home," said Julius Alfonzo, 38, a Strong Place parent who works as a bus operator. Otherwise, he added, "it wouldn't make sense. One of the incomes would be paying for childcare."

Not all parents are as lucky as Alfonzo. Many are single. Some live in shelters.

A spokesperson for mayor Bloomberg, Marc LaVorgna, acknowledged the sometimes devastating consequences of city budget cuts.

"You can't quantify in dollar value the value of some of the services to people," he said. "They are very difficult decisions to make, but the city is best served when its financial house remains in order."

Even though it's considered a day care center, Strong Place operates more like a rigorous preschool. On Thursday, Lorraine Pennisi, the center's effusive director, who has been a "proud auntie" to Strong Place children for 22 years, beamed as a group of toddlers sang "Keep Christmas With You," accompanying the words with sign language. On the wall behind her hung drawings from an "art exchange," between the Strong Place children and students in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Pennisi is worried, but she tries not to show it.

"It's a very heavy burden on me," she said, "to keep people hopeful."

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