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Allison Sesso

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The "Budget Dance": It's Time to Change the Steps

Posted: 06/07/11 05:17 PM ET

This time each year, our mayor and city council go through a process insiders call the "budget dance." Many of us have never learned the dips and spins New York City's budget takes before an after-school program or a senior center are closed for good.

First step? Baselining. When a program in our city's budget is "baselined," it becomes part of the core budget, even in hard times.

Think of your household budget. Bills you must pay each month -- like your rent or mortgage -- are your baseline. A medical expense, while essential, may not be.

Next step? Any programs our city council restores to our city's annual budget get funds for one year only and are not baselined. That means they're automatically off the table at the start of next year's "budget dance." That's no random misstep. It's a deliberate strategy to keep spending in check. If the same programs must be repeatedly restored, there's almost no room to consider new needs, especially in tough times.

That means the budget dance sidelines many human services. In fact, about $200 million in human services funding falls victim to this process every year -- from $4.5 million for food at senior centers to $3 million to reduce infant mortality, from $1.2 million for healthcare in adult shelters to $1.25 million for autism awareness and $6 million for runaway and homeless youth. This puts all these programs and many more that save and transform New Yorkers' lives on shaky ground. Anyone who wants to make sure they survive must spend every May and June making the case for why the funds for these vital services should, once again, be put back into our city budget.

Try to run an organization this way. Each new budget year for our city starts July 1. The budget dance typically ends just before the June 30th deadline. Finding out if a program will be funded and at what level just a few days before the new budget year begins creates extreme challenges to planning and running programs effectively. It often forces nonprofits to hand out pink slips, only to later tear them up. Meanwhile, staff find other jobs, leaving their former employers scrambling to find last-minute replacements for people with special skills and training.

That's bad enough when times are good. But what about today, as our city tries to close a big deficit with few revenue options on the table? In lean years like this one, non-baselined human service programs bear the brunt of heated political fights between our mayor and city council and are in deep jeopardy.

Worse yet, in addition to the traditional "list" of human services programs that are on the table each year, this year our mayor has called for brand new deep cuts to human services and to our schools and fire department. Must all these vital services be forced to compete for funding?

New York's city council only controls a small portion of the overall budget. It typically can restore about $400 million out of $65 billion each year. Mayor Bloomberg is proposing nearly $400 million in cuts to human services alone. With all the fresh competition for these funds, expect the worst. If the mayor refuses to back any additional restorations or consider alternative approaches to balancing the budget, it's hard to see how the essential services our communities rely on can be saved.

Human services aren't frills. They're lifelines for those of us who count on them for food, safety, housing, and jobs -- not to mention contracts and income for plumbers, electricians, landlords, office supply firms and every company human services agencies do business with.

It's time to stop the music and try a few new steps:

• The city has been squirreling over $3 billion away for a rainy day in the Retiree Trust Fund -- $1 billion of that could reduce the deficit this year.
• Supporting the Personal Income Tax high-earners surcharge at the state level would bring at least $750 million more in from Albany.
• End $100 million worth of tax subsidies for financial institutions that failed to reach the job creation targets they promised in exchange for those tax breaks.
• Close tax loopholes on Unincorporated Business Tax deductions and exemptions that benefit big banks and our wealthiest citizens to bring us $320 million.

To balance our city's budget fairly we need our lawmakers to do their part to find fair solutions, tackle imbalances, and ensure that the powerful and privileged pay their share. Otherwise, come summer, the rest of us will be forced to pay the price.