“Doomsday,” “draconian” and “drastic” are a couple of words to describe New York State and City budget proposals. As legislative leaders tussle with executives over onerous cuts, local institutions, nonprofits and museums that rely on government assistance are feeling the hurt.
“Most of these nonprofits get funding from all three levels of government in various degrees,” said Assembly Member Dick Gottfried. “With state and city budget cuts, they’re facing a real difficulty.”
Gottfried has hosted several town hall meetings in Manhattan with other local elected officials to talk to executive directors and representatives from these groups. Government funding cuts, coupled with a decrease in donations and corporate support, have forced many organizations to reduce their workforce, cut administrative costs and even eliminate some programs that provide a public service.
“If the governor’s proposed cuts go through,” Gottfried said, “I think there’ll be significant cuts in personnel and services around the state.”
On the bright side, the town hall meetings have provided an opportunity for organizations to share their stories and plans for navigating the bad economy.
“The audience has been learning from each other,” Gottfried said, “more than from what they’re learning from me or other elected officials.”
Below is a snapshot of how a handful of local groups are wrestling with shrinking budgets and increased needs.
AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
Central Park West and West 79th Street
Natural history fans, exhale—the blue whale and dinosaurs are safe. And so is the American Museum of Natural History’s mission to bring science and education programs to the public. But the famed institution has already begun trimming its programming and staff, and will continue to do so in the months ahead.
Last summer, after the first city budget cuts were announced, administrators began offering buyout options to some longtime employees: they decided to leave about 30 empty positions unfilled, according to Charles McLean, senior vice president for communications and marketing.
Programmatic cuts included an educational initiative that brought college students in for training and research, and the popular “Starry Nights” Friday jazz series.
Now, with the endowment down by about 25 percent (a loss that’s a little bit better than what other cultural institutions are experiencing, according to McLean), the museum will also be closing some of the less popular halls on a rotating basis to reduce security costs.
“Not the big halls that everybody comes to see,” McLean said, noting that the whale and dinosaurs are absolutely not under consideration for temporary closure. “Parts of the museum that have less traffic.”
Together, these measures are intended to trim the $170 million operating budget by approximately 10 percent, which should help the museum prepare for future financial hardships as well.
“I think the problem is nobody knows how long this will last or where it’s going,” McLean said of the economic downturn. “And I think you have to act prudently and responsibly in the face of a lot of unknowns here.”
STANLEY M. ISAACS NEIGHBORHOOD CENTER
415 E. 93rd St.
Like many human service organizations, the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center is caught between two opposing forces: as the economy worsens and funding contracts, its clients tend to require even more support.
“And of course the people we’re serving are the ones with greatest needs,” said Wanda Wooten, the center’s executive director. “There’s a long list of services we provide and everything is being threatened with budget cuts, I’m afraid.”
The center, which provides hot meals for seniors, social work support, after school services and more, gets a little more than half of its $6.3 million budget from the government. Already, administrators have trimmed costs by 8 percent by reducing part-time and less critical social work expenses. But if the governor and mayor’s budget proposals go through, the total for combined cuts could be as much as 15 percent.
Additional staff reductions are therefore likely, Wooten said, and the center will also probably have to cut back on specialists. These include instructors for children’s art workshops, and for ballroom dancing, yoga and tai chi classes for seniors.
The cuts make it incredibly difficult to deliver quality service, and to fulfill one of the center’s goals of keeping local seniors active, healthy, safe and independent. Which, Wooten adds, is “much cheaper than someone going into a nursing home.”
MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK
1220 Fifth Ave.
Founded in 1923, the Museum of the City of New York was able to weather The Great Depression. And because the public nonprofit acted early when the current fiscal crisis was looming, the museum is weathering this recession as well.
President and Director Susan Henshaw Jones said the city’s cuts were anticipated, allowing the museum to balance its budget.
“Our board counseled us to act early on, and we did,” Henshaw Jones said. “It’s a dynamic situation, but one we are managing and to good effect.”
The museum receives $1.2 million in energy and general operations support from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. But the department is facing an 11.7 percent cut for the next fiscal year, and Henshaw Jones is anticipating that will trickle down to her organization.
Administrators also cut general operations, like staffing and administrative support, so that the museum could preserve public programs and exhibitions—especially because attendance is up.
“People are going to local museums and not doing more expensive things,” Henshaw Jones said. “We think we can be a place for the heart and for the mind in these difficult times ahead.”
MARTHA GRAHAM CENTER OF CONTEMPORARY DANCE
316 E. 63rd St.
Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance is one of about 570 arts organizations in the state that are cursed by bad timing. Grant money from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) is distributed four times a year; last year, organizations on the March and July schedule received their funding as planned, but those who had been counting on October and December disbursements—which included Martha Graham—were told they’d have to wait until the State Legislature completed its deficit reduction plan, which is still being negotiated.
LaRue Allen, Martha Graham’s executive director, explained that the funding crunch comes on the heels of a massive effort bring the dance company and school out of a $5 million deficit incurred during a high-profile legal battle over the Graham estate. Allen and company emerged victorious but had to make major cutbacks to work off the debt. The group now functions with a budget that was cut by more than half, to $2.8 million.
“We are literally counting paperclips,” Allen said.
Should the $150,000 grant previously provided by the state evaporate, Martha Graham would need to cut several initiatives, Allen said. A program that works with 13 schools each year in the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan is on the chopping block, as well as “Teens at Graham,” which serves young adults, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have a deep interest in dance. Dancers may also lose their jobs.
“For us to lose the NYSCA funding and to lose it midyear without a period to make adjustments and to plan is just devastating,” Allen said.
129 W. 67th St.
Thanks to serious budget limitations, the Special Music School, a partnership between the Kaufman Center and the city’s Department of Education, might soon lose its “special” status.
“We’re considering cutting anything that isn’t central. Everything is up for question,” said Kaufman’s executive director, Lydia Kontos.
Kaufman has already gotten state and city budget cuts, and expected grants from the New York State Council on the Arts are on hold, pending the outcome of State Legislature’s deficit reduction plan.
“I don’t know that we can go back on obligations,” Kontos said. “We will have to sustain a loss.”
This year, the Department of Cultural Affairs decreased Kaufman’s funding by 4 percent, from $200,000 to $192,000.
These losses will impact the number of presentations held at the Merkin Concert Hall and will cause the center to stop free ticket distribution.
“Last year, a special initiative from the Department for the Aging enabled us to provide free tickets for seniors from JASA and Lenox Hill for the Tuesday matinee concerts in Merkin Concert Hall,” said Joan Jastrebski, Kaufman’s director of marketing and communications. “That $10,000 was not available to us this year, and we were not able to offer those free tickets to seniors.”
Kaufman doesn’t anticipate an imminent resolution for its economic troubles and is focusing efforts on making do with what it has.
“I don’t see a place to turn right now,” Kontos said. “I’m just trying to plan more carefully and construct a budget for next year.”
COUNCIL SENIOR CENTER
241 W. 72nd St.
Although the economic downturn has forced Council Senior Center to make program cuts and start charging for recreational courses that were previously free, it has also expedited the center’s “creative aging” endeavors.
“We’re partnering up with The New York Public Library, Julliard, NYU and Columbia so that we’ll be an institution without walls,” said Director Ed Bartosik. “Elders want a menu of opportunity and this is the most cost effective way.”
Seniors can, for example, get discounts for a partner organization’s offerings through the center, and take part in programs like the library’s “Book of the Month Club” and discussion groups. By collaborating with neighboring institutions, Bartosik aims to stretch his budget and his members’ opportunities.
“We need to take into account how elders spend their time,” he said. “The silent generation is thinning out and we need to build a new audience with baby boomers.”
The center itself still has plenty to offer, but prices have increased. On Feb. 2, the cost of 20-week exercise and health classes was set at $25 (they were previously free), and the price of 20-week art classes rose to $50 from $25. Further increases may be considered in September, depending on economy.
“We aren’t supported by city, state or federal funding. We get funding from the National Council of Jewish Women and their donor base is lacking,” Bartosik explained.
The price hike will not come as a surprise to members.
“We’ve been notifying people since November,” Bartosik said. “Most people feel that we should’ve been charging a while ago.”
NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
There are 16 branches of the New York Public Library currently operating on the East and West sides of Manhattan. With Internet access, periodicals, computers and, of course, free books, usage typically increases during periods of economic hardship.
“There’s no institution in the city of New York which is more full service than the library,” said Assembly Member Jonathan Bing, who worked to restore Saturday library service a few years ago.
Heidi Singer, a library spokesperson, said that circulation of library materials is indeed up by 3.5 million items, and library visits have been up by 2 million over the last year. But the state has proposed a cut for this year of $2.8 million, or 13.5 percent, coupled with a proposed city budget cut of $23.2 million, or 17 percent. Which means unfettered library access may once again become a luxury New York can’t afford. Currently, all branches are open at least six days a week, according to Singer, but the proposed cut in funding would result in a loss of this six-day service—“something that New Yorkers fought long and hard for and has proved to be an important resource for the people of New York in this time of economic difficulty,” she wrote in an email.
The St. Agnes Branch, at 444 Amsterdam Ave. near West 81st Street, has been undergoing renovations since October 2007, and Singer reports that work is moving along as planned, and will not be affected by cuts.
LENOX HILL NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSE
331 E. 70th St.
Through The Great Depression, two world wars, the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks and a slew of other debilitating crises, the 115-year-old Lenox Hill Neighborhood House has survived. Now, as the economic state worsens, the organization’s resilience will be tested again.
“People depend on us to care for their children and feed homeless. We just have to focus on clients and helping people the best we can,” said Executive Director Warren Scharf.
Lenox Hill, which assists 20,000 needy individuals a year through meal services, day care programs, housing options and more, relies on governmental funding and private support, both of which have been severely reduced.
“The city has closed all of the adult day programs, not because they don’t work, but because we don’t have the money,” Scharf said.
More reductions are on the way, as the mayor proposed 5 percent cuts to senior centers and 4.5 percent cuts to case management contracts for older adults; Lenox Hill runs two centers, as well as a case management program that services homebound seniors.
“We have 1,100 clients who are frail and homebound. A $60,000 loss is two case managers,” Scharf said, explaining how the cuts would affect the Lenox program.
But many of the older clients are hopeful, often reminding Scharf that “somebody’s done it before, and we need to do it again.” And though Scharf is certain that the organization will endure, he isn’t optimistic about an immediate focus on reviving service organizations.
“Even when the economy comes back, the first order isn’t going to be funding poor people,” he said.
GODDARD RIVERSIDE COMMUNITY CENTER
593 Columbus Ave.
Stephan Russo, executive director of Goddard Riverside Community Center, isn’t yet sure how bad the cuts are going to be—but he is preparing for the worst.
“It is imperative to start making plans,” Russo said.
The center, which serves 16,000 people through 16 sites and 22 programs, operates on a $24 million budget. Already last July, $175,000 was cut, and foundation funding took a dip. Now, Russo is predicting a 10 percent funding cut, and thinks Goddard may be as much as $1 million to $2 million off budget next year.
The cuts have already resulted in the closure of one program, fewer trips, a tighter grip on supplies and a hiring freeze. Looking forward, Russo said that city cuts may threaten the very existence of Goddard’s senior center. Goddard will also likely offer fewer meals and ask parents of children who use its programs to contribute more money. Although core services will endure, Russo explained, there’s no doubt that you “do less with less.”
With additional reporting by Nick Broad.
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