By DANIEL OFFNER
As the 2013 election season creeps steadily closer, candidates in the race for Westchester county executive are now butting heads over budgetary cuts to the county Department of Social Services.
During the last fiscal budget cycle, the county adopted a $1.7 billion budget, which reduced the department’s funding by $6.9 million and staffing by 4.2 percent, ultimately cutting 46 positions from the DSS.
Under the administration of Republican County Executive Rob Astorino, spending for Social Services—the county’s largest department—has been reduced by approximately $16.1 million in the past three years.
Ned McCormack, director of communications and senior advisor to the county executive, said that the overall reduction provided relatively important savings, which went towards reducing the county’s deficit from $166 million in 2011 to $86 million in 2013.
However, for the two candidates fighting for the title of Westchester county executive, the root of the controversy surrounding the department cuts encompasses a proposed increase in contribution requirements for low-income families eligible to receive child care subsidies. The subsidy specifically provides temporary assistance to recipients who need daycare services in order to work at a job or to participate in the department’s mandated employment-related activities.
During the budget process, Astorino proposed increasing contribution rates for low-income parents from its former 20 percent requirement to 35 percent of a parent’s income, exceeding two times the federal poverty line.
After running into legal challenges from Democrats on the county Board of Legislators, Astorino convened with a bipartisan coalition—consisting of seven Republicans and two Democrats on the board—which adopted the county budget for 2013 and had compromised on increasing the contribution threshold to 27 percent.
“Most other places [parents contribute] above 27 percent,” McCormack said. “Westchester County currently provides the same or less [rates] than two-thirds of the 58 social services districts statewide.”
He added that most of the departmental costs are mandated by the state. However, the county’s Title XX program—which provides subsidies for families with an income between $35,000 to as much as $87,000 depending on the number of children—is a discretionary cost that the county is not required to provide, but has continued to offer.
Although the number of families eligible for Title XX subsidies is not capped, the county has refused any new additions to the program since 2010, when the county issued a freeze on subsidizing new families that earn 275 percent above the federal poverty line.
Meanwhile, the partisan issue is shaping into a key topic of debate between Astorino and his Democratic challenger, New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, who has called for a greater level of coordination with the Department of Social Services, instead of what he calls the “draconian” cuts made to childcare credits.
Astorino’s campaign manager Bill O’Reilly recently said that, under the Astorino administration, the county was able to expand the number of available daycare slots at no additional cost to the taxpayers.
But, according to Barry Caro, a spokesman for the Bramson campaign, the reason child care subsidy programs have a number of emptying slots is because people cannot afford to contribute to the increased cost of the program.
“Having open slots is not something the county should be celebrating,” Caro said. “People are unable to access necessary services.”
Caro argued that the cuts will ultimately cost the county more money in the future and could potentially cause working parents who can no longer afford to receive subsidized child care services to quit their job and go on welfare.
In response to Caro’s allegations, David Simpson, a spokesperson for the county executive, said there is no factual information backing up claims that families have dropped from the program because they cannot afford to contribute.
“It’s flat out wrong,” Simpson said. “[Bramson’s campaign] is just trying to make a political issue out of this by twisting the facts.”
According to Simpson, since the increased rates went into effect in February, the county has increased the child care subsidy program’s availability by 130 new slots. He added that since increasing the parent’s share of child care costs, the county has also seen an uptick in the number of parents applying for child care subsidies.