Tag Archive | "budget cuts"

Van Nest Library Asked to Do More With Less

As technology needs grow, the budgets of public libraries continue to shrink. (ANDREW FREEDMAN/The Bronx Ink)

It is never easy to provide more services with less money, but the Van Nest branch of the New York Public Library is trying to figure out how to do so. In the case of the three branches in Community District 11 of the Bronx, the social and technological needs of the residents have grown every year, while the budgets of the libraries have shrunk. The library manager at the Van Nest branch on Barnes Avenue said that he is starting to feel the squeeze from years of modest cuts. Last year, the city library system was operating with a $245 million budget, down by $118 million from two years earlier. "Three or four years of modest cuts in a row has significantly eroded the budget," said David Nochimson. He said that the branch reduced hours in 2010 and is working with a smaller staff. Data regarding specific branches is not available, though Nochimson explained it covers little else besides staff salaries and office supplies. While there have been no layoffs at his branch, some positions such as part-time pages have been eliminated as people left their positions. Four years ago, Van Nest had six part-time pages – students who shelve books, assist patrons with technology and complete other tasks that keep the library running smoothly. In 2011, they were down to one. They have managed to hire one more since. "When someone retires or leaves they just don't replace them," said Jeffrey M. Panish, a volunteer at the Van Nest branch. "They expect more service out of less people."

The New York Public Library System has faced modest budget cuts since 2009. Another cut is planned for the 2013 fiscal year. (ANDREW FREEDMAN/The Bronx Ink)

The Van Nest branch is also consolidating service desks. Previously, their service desk was combined with their children's desk. That desk will be combined with circulation. Plans are for the children's section to be manned for fewer hours with a librarian at a desk on wheels. This all occurs as the libraries of Community District 11 face a changing role, accommodating the needs of teenagers and children who like to socialize – popular visitors after school - as well as older patrons who prefer the quiet that is customary to libraries. "Gone are the days of the 'shh' and the quiet areas," said Denise Lyles, the library manager at the Allerton branch on Barnes Avenue between Arnow Avenue and Allerton Avenue. She said her library served as an unofficial day camp for neighborhood kids during the summer. They provided activities and programs including time playing video games and other games like UNO, in addition to their usual services. At the Morris Park branch – just under a mile from the Van Nest branch - library manager Sandy W. Henry said her staff tends to be very busy. Their community room is often turned into a "homework zone" in the afternoons, while programs for older patrons, such as book discussions and lectures, are held earlier in the day. Nochimson has a unique problem in that the Van Nest branch's community room isn't on a separate floor. Instead, it's behind a glass wall. This allows Nochimson and his staff to keep an eye on children, but it doesn't prevent noise or music from travelling. He said, however, that constant communication with both kids and adults helps keep the peace. "We want to make it clear that we see a distinction between social interaction and disruptive behavior," he said. The libraries in Morris Park and Allerton have not yet felt constrained by the budget cuts, according to their library managers. Lyles admitted she would like to see more computers in her library, but had no other complaints. Henry suggested that her library may have been spared from cuts due to high circulation and attendance. The New York Public Library's administration did not return several calls seeking comment regarding how its budget is allocated to individual branches and whether that involves circulation and attendance. District Manager Jeremy Warneke said that he thinks Nochimson does well with the changing needs of patrons and is especially good with the needs of children. Nochimson acknowledges that the work is hard and that his staff has been experiencing crossover in their job responsibilities. But with some sacrifice, everything manages to work. "We need to be able to deploy our staff in this more efficient way," he said. "We're now expected to help each other out as needed."

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Budget cuts hit pro bono legal services

Legal services providers rallied last month for state funding for foreclosure prevention services. (CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN/Bronx Ink)

Room 607 at Bronx County Courthouse isn’t a typical courtroom. The judge’s bench is empty, and the jury box, too. A fax machine stands where a court reporter might otherwise sit, and filing cabinets line one of the walls. A dozen homeowners and bank lawyers are waiting for their cases to come up. When they do, they walk to one of two desks set up at opposite ends of the cavernous room to talk not to a judge but to a court attorney. These are foreclosure conferences. Last year alone, banks filed more than 2,500 foreclosures in the Bronx, which has the lowest home ownership rate in the city, but the highest foreclosure rate. While the banks have lawyers to make their case at court, most of the homeowners don’t. “Foreclosure is all about power dynamics,” said Justin Haines, sitting in a spartan office in a converted courtroom adjacent to Room 607. Haines heads this office — Legal Services NYC’s foreclosure unit — which offers free legal counsel to homeowners who risk losing their homes. “When I first switched over to foreclosures, it was hard for me to decipher some of the exotic loans these banks are offering,” said Haines, who previously represented tenants in Housing Court cases. As the economy has worsened, demand has soared for services offered by nonprofits like Legal Services NYC, which provide legal counsel to low-income Americans in civil matters like foreclosure. But the same struggling economy has also hit these nonprofits hard, squeezing their main funding sources: federal and state budgets and special lawyers’ accounts that pay interest toward civil legal aid. In the latest blow, on Nov. 17, Congress slashed $56 million in funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the congressionally-mandated agency that doles out grants to 136 nonprofits nationwide to address the “justice gap” — the US population that cannot afford counsel for civil legal matters. Among those nonprofits is Legal Services NYC. “These cuts are devastating,” says Jill Siegel, the deputy project director of Legal Services’ Bronx division. Legal Services already suffered a 4 percent budget cut this year and will lose another $800,000 in the next, Siegel said. Worse yet, it will lose 20 percent of its LSC funding for 2013 to 2014 under changes to the federal formula for distributing the funds, which currently pay for about 44 percent of pro bono legal services nationwide. The 15 percent cutback in LSC grant money last month comes on top of this. All of these cuts will reverberate in the Bronx, where demand for civil legal aid in the Bronx is growing, said Siegel, whose organization handles everything from wrongful cancellation of public assistance to custody battles in domestic violence cases. Navigating civil courts without legal assistance is like running an “obstacle course,” she said. Haines’ foreclosure unit is fighting for refunding of a state grant. Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo cut a special budget for legal services combatting foreclosures. Late last month, Haines and others from Legal Services NYC and other housing counseling and legal service providers held a rally on the steps of Manhattan Supreme Court to ask the state assembly and governor to put foreclosure prevention back in the budget. At the Bronx courthouse, Haines’ foreclosure office is quiet. On a morning in November, a middle-aged couple sat huddled over papers, waiting their turn for a consultation. Fliers on the wall warned homeowners behind on their mortgages against loan modification scams — agencies that promise they can stop foreclosure on a home in return for steep fees. Though there were only a few walk-ins, the office’s three attorneys and two paralegals had full caseloads. “I wish I had three times as much staff,” said Haines, who worked through lunch. The couple waited two hours before he was able to see them. Haines believes providing legal counsel for families facing foreclosure pays off for the government and community. “If you talk about economic recovery, it erodes the tax base when houses are empty,” he said. While most of New York’s homeless population — currently at record-high levels — have been evicted from apartments rather than houses, in the Bronx, about 10 percent come from foreclosures, he said. Many are homeowners who’ve lost their jobs. Others fall behind when tenants they rent rooms to lose their jobs and start missing their monthly payments. Often Haines represents homeowners in their absence. “In foreclosure, people are often dealing with underemployment,” he said. “There are so many court appearances, and if they miss work that often, they could really get into trouble.” At the same time that funding cuts pummel Legal Services, other providers in New York are suffering, too — even those not dependent on congressional allocations. Legal Aid Services, which does not receive LSC funding, lost millions in state funding in recent years and hundreds of thousands in city funding. To cope with the cuts, it shed dozens of staff positions from its already overtaxed civil division. For every person the civil practice helps, another eight are turned away. That reflects a nationwide phenomenon. Legal services providers across the country trimmed their payrolls in recent years as government and IOLTA funding shrank. IOLTA (interest on lawyer trust account) funds, or, in New York, IOLA (interest on lawyers’ accounts), are funds that collect interest from escrow accounts where lawyers hold clients’ money. Back in the heady days of the real estate boom, these funds were raking in money. Trust accounts seemed an ideal solution to fund civil legal services without costing taxpayers a dime. “I started in 2005,” Haines said, referring to his previous job at the Legal Aid Society. “And in 2007, we were all dreaming, finding the holes in our work. We could actually design what we needed.” Then the bubble burst, and legal service providers found themselves struggling just to maintain the same level of services. At the foreclosure unit, the understaffed team allocates its time carefully. “People come in, sign in, give us information about their case,” Haines said. “We help them prepare pro se papers” to defend themselves. Often their help stops there. “We really only get involved if there are significant defenses.” The situation is similar at Housing Court and for public assistance cases. In public assistance cases, having an advocate can make all the difference. In May, the Urban Justice Center, another New York provider of pro bono legal services, found that 86 percent of decisions to cut off public assistance are cancelled when challenged in hearings. Many of the cancellations can be traced to simple clerical errors at the Human Resources Administration, yet resolving them can be tricky. Still, few nonprofits have units dedicated to handling public assistance cases, and those that do can’t meet the demand. “We have to decide which cases would be more difficult for an unrepresented person,” said Maryanne Joyce, who works at Bronx Legal Services’ public benefits unit. Joyce represents appellants who have had their public assistance revoked. One problem for Joyce’s unit is that many legal services programs are paid for by targeted funds — a mixed blessing. An example is the New York State Assembly’s budget for helping homeowners stave off foreclosures. While Legal Services is grateful for such injections, targeted funding tends to cluster around a few popular causes. Public assistance isn’t one of them. “It’s not an area that people find compelling,” said Joyce, whose unit has just two staff lawyers and one paralegal. “So it’s not easy to fundraise.” That’s where LSC funds become all the more precious. The LSC funds are unrestricted. That means Legal Services NYC can apply the money where it’s needed most, as long as it serves the population that qualifies for legal services. Clients must fall below the income threshold of 125 percent of the national poverty line, or about $28,000 per year for a family of four. In its most recent report on the state of the nation’s justice gap in 2009, the LSC cited studies indicating, not surprisingly, that litigants with legal counsel fare better than those without. Yet on average, LSC-funded programs turn away one client for every client they accept nationwide. And legal services programs as a whole — including those not funded by the LSC — serve only about one-fifth of the needs of low-income Americans. The consequences of this are visible at Bronx Housing Court. On a typical day, the courtrooms and halls alike are packed with tenants waiting their turn before a judge. Sometimes the line to enter the courthouse winds out the door and along the front of the building. While the vast majority of the tenants do not have legal counsel, the opposite holds true for the landlords. “The landlords pay $150 an hour for a lawyer,” said Wanda Salaman, director of Mothers on the Move, a local nonprofit in Hunts Point. “The tenants can’t afford that.” Tenants in the area often turn to Salaman’s group for advice on eviction cases, and Salaman refers them to legal services providers for help. But the options in the Bronx fall far short of meeting the community’s needs, and with the impending LSC cuts and funding redistribution, that is unlikely to improve. At the rally outside Supreme Court last month, state senators who opposed cutting the foreclosure prevention budget pleaded for refunding the services.
Compared to the losses in tax revenue and property value that foreclosures represent, “$25 million is a drop in the bucket,” said Adriano Espaillat, who represents Manhattan. Senator Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx and Westchester said skimping on foreclosure prevention services “makes no economic sense.” A protestor in the crowd behind him held up a sign that read simply: “Every home saved = a stronger economy.” In the Bronx, banks have moved to foreclose on another 260 homes in the past three months, Klein’s office said. Citywide, the figure is 1,800. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” Klein told the crowd.  

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An uncertain future for Morrisania’s post office

Inside the two-story post office on 167th Street and Park Avenue, the door slammed every few minutes on a recent Monday morning as customers filtered in and out. Only two of the five customer windows were open, and the lines snaked all the way to the entrance. Nothing unusual there, according to customers in line. “I’ve been coming here for 47 years,” said Hassan Forrest, who arrived early at the Morrisania post office to pick up his mail. The Metropolitan Transport Authority employee still lives in in the apartment he grew up in on nearby Webster Avenue and has never gotten  around to closing his family's post office box. But Forrest and other Morrisania residents may have to transfer their mail to another address if the U.S. Postal Service is allowed to close over 3,500 post offices throughout the nation. The White House proposed these drastic cut backs after the post office became insolvent the end of September. It had reached a borrowing ceiling of $15 billion, and used the last of its cash reserves. The Morrisania post office, located in a building recognized as National Register of Historic Places in 1988, is one of 17 branches in the Bronx scheduled to close. Neither customers, nor Morrisania's mail carriers seemed to be aware of the proposed cuts. A staff member who was rushing out of the post office building on her lunch break  cut short a reporter's questions, saying the place wasn't closing. The only changes she knew of were the maintenance work recently undertaken in one of the second floor rooms. “For me it’s not a major issue, but some older people are coming here,” said Forrest, who was on his way to work in his MTA uniform. One retired nurse from the Bronx said she comes to the post office at least three times a week. Pakala Dingle, 63, said she depends on the post office to pay her rent every month. Money orders cost only $1 compared to $3 or more at the bank.  Dingle wakes up at 6:30 every morning to exercise and walks to the post office to collect her mail for the small business of organic products she started a few years ago after she retired. She also picks up her Social Security checks at the post office. Like many others, Dingle and Forrest believe the Internet has affected the postal system, along with competition from other private mailing services. On a two-block radius around the post office, at least six stores sold stamps and two shops offered cheap money orders. President Obama’s plan, which was announced earlier last month, did not include its initial promise that mailing costs would stay the same. On  Oct. 18, the postal service announced that stamps would cost 45 cents, a one-cent increase, starting next January. The plan also suggested that post offices could offer non-postal products and cut out Saturday deliveries as a way to reduce debt. Jimi Perez, a postal union delegate, criticized Obama’s proposals as ineffective. Even though Obama is willing to pay back the postal service $6.9 billion for having overpaid a federal retirement fund for years, Perez complained that the federal government owes the workers still more. “In its plan, Obama proposed to reimburse only $20 billion out of the $80 billion USPS has overpaid,” he said. The closest post office to Morrisania is on Westchester and St. Ann's Avenue, about 20 minutes away on the BX41 and BX55 buses. “If this post office closes, the old and disabled people that come here everyday will have to commute to a much further place,” said Perez, 59, who said anyone working for postal service  was threatened by the budget cut. “And how will they come to pick up their mail? In a taxi?” View Is your Bronx post office threatened by the U.S. Postal Service budget cuts? in a larger map  

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