Opinion: Before Nassau Throws a Party, We Must Serve Our Most Vulnerable

Opinion: Before Nassau Throws a Party, We Must Serve Our Most Vulnerable

By Siela A. Bynoe

The practitioners who deliver physical, speech, and occupational therapy services to babies and toddlers under age 3 with disabilities and developmental delays have not gotten a raise from Nassau County in nearly three decades. As homelessness continues to grow, Nassau has slashed its funding to the Department of Social Services (DSS) and its Homeless Intervention Team (HIT) has been disbanded. Yet, before solving these issues, the County sunk $10 million in federal pandemic recovery aid into its 125th anniversary plans.

Since the program’s inception in 1999, Nassau County has paid the same rate of $40 per hour to practitioners in its “Pre-School Related Services” program. Research confirms that, after 27 years without an increase, Nassau’s rate of compensation is now the lowest in the state. This has discouraged practitioners from working with Nassau County, and as a result, it has been reported that approximately 200 young people are on a waiting list for services.

Shortly after concluding my service on the Westbury School Board and becoming a Legislator in 2014, I identified – and successfully reversed – plans by the Mangano administration to transfer $4.5 million from the Early Childhood Intervention budget. Additionally, I worked to end the County’s practice of benchmarking the performance of consultants tasked by the County with providing services to youth based upon their cost efficiency.

While these were significant strides in preserving the framework of this essential youth initiative, the stagnation in Nassau’s rate of compensation has created major obstacles for families in need of services. With every year that passes, the imbalance grows wider between those who can afford to backfill the services that Nassau County is not providing and those who cannot.

Advocates are seeking parity with neighboring municipalities, and because New York State reimburses Nassau County at a rate of 59.5 percent of our outlay for these services, it would have been prudent to increase what we pay by using a small portion of Nassau’s $299 million in remaining American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds as a bridge until higher reimbursements rates kicked in. I can think of no more appropriate use for these funds than the post-pandemic educational recovery of Nassau County’s young people.

A similar disconnect exists in Nassau’s handling of its homelessness crisis. Upon my request in 2017, Nassau’s Office of Housing and Intergovernmental Affairs provided me with a budget report showing that $325,000 was earmarked for the Nassau County DSS HIT team, which was comprised of several Adult Protective Services (APS) employees and Housing and Homeless Prevention personnel and tasked with performing extensive street outreach services.

However, after being disbanded, the HIT team was replaced by the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, which has received less than half that sum from the County to provide these outreach services in subsequent years. The Coalition’s 2023 “point in time” count of the homeless on Long Island discovered the number had increased to 3,536 people – 1,463 of them under age 18. Based on these numbers, the need has increased – so should Nassau County’s funding.

Rather than apply resources to areas that we know are underfunded, the County Executive and Legislative Majority on Monday, Jan. 22 transferred over $222 million in ARPA funds into the operating budget and just $15 million into a fund for various not-for-profit organizations and special districts that deliver ARPA-approved services. The $15 million was transferred with no guarantee those resources would be disseminated equally across the Legislature’s 19 districts.

It is notable how, a month prior to this vote, the administration carved out $10 million in federal pandemic money into the County’s 125th anniversary celebration. While they justified this by forecasting an economic boost through increased tourism, analysis published in a recent Econ Focus report shows that the administration’s projection of a $3 return per dollar spent relies on the existence of a near-zero interest rate. Econ Focus further demonstrated that, based on current economic conditions, the actual boost could be as little as 50 cents on the dollar.

Faced with an opportunity to optimally resource programs that shelter the homeless and deliver crucial services to deserving, at-risk youngsters, Nassau County should have realigned its priorities. Spending so much to advertise and stage concerts and fund a series of anniversary celebrations appears downright frivolous in light of these unmet needs.

Siela A. Bynoe, of Westbury, is the Alternate Deputy Minority Leader of the Nassau County Legislature. She has represented the Second Legislative District since 2014.

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