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Table scraps: odds and ends from the Monroe County budget talks 

The 2004 Monroe County budget may or may not include big social service cuts. It may also include putting welfare on a charge-back system. Safety Net is a state program for people not eligible for the federal welfare program. The cost is split between the state and the county. One proposal floating around in the county legislature calls for Safety Net costs to be assessed to the municipalities in which the recipients live. The county government would no longer be responsible for the local portion of the funding.

            The move would cost the city of Rochester approximately $14 million.

            As of Tuesday, the county lej was still meeting daily to come up with a budget proposal that includes a plan to close a $42 million deficit. The meetings go like this: the lej convenes, the Republicans announce they still don't have an agreement, and both sides recess to their individual caucuses for two hours. Pizza is sometimes involved. After two hours, everyone returns to chambers. The Republicans say no agreement has been reached. We all go home.

            The budget limbo has given citizens and community groups plenty of time to voice their displeasure at rallies, protests, and lej meetings over possible funding cuts. Of the list of cuts, advocates have been most vocal about city school nurses and the possible Safety Net charge-backs.

Thequestion that keeps coming up regarding city school nurses: Is the county mandated to keep funding the service? Republicans say no.

            The $972.1 million budget proposed by County Executive Jack Doyle eliminates funding for the nurses at the end of the current school year. School district officials, the nurses themselves, and nursing advocates say cutting nurses would devastate city schools.

            "It would be a very dangerous situation for students," says Mary Capparelli, administrator for the Statewide School Health Services Center.            Advocates, including Nancy O' Mara, retired coordinator of school health services for Monroe County, claim that the county is mandated to fund the nurses, per the terms of the merger of the county health department and city health bureau, which took place in the late 1950s.

            But O'Mara also argues, incorrectly, that the city of Buffalo faced a similar situation with the Erie County Health Department. The school district, she says, took the county to court and won --- forcing the county to continue funding the nurses.

            "In researching the issue, we discovered there was not enough of a paper trail to prevail on a lawsuit," says Judith Fisher, a Democrat in the Erie County Legislature. Fisher was on the Buffalo school board at the time.

            "We really need a full-time RN [registered nurse] in every school and some schools that are relatively big probably need two," she says.

            The truth about whether or not the county must fund the nurses may be a legal gray area.

            Nurses, specifically, aren't mandated anywhere in New York State. Rochester is one of three cities in the state --- the others are Buffalo and New York --- not required to have a "medical inspector" on staff in the schools.

            Education Law 912 reads: "In the three cities...health services are to be provided by the following agencies..." For Rochester, it lists the School Health Services Division of the Monroe County Department of Health.

            The interpretation of "health services" is another matter, Capparelli says. "Some people get very creative."

Safety Net charge-backs were eliminated in the late 1960s in part because they were unfair to the city.

            Since 90 percent of Safety Net recipients live in the city, the city would have to come up with approximately $14 million.

            The county legislature voted 25 to 3 to approve a Republican plan to eliminate the charges in March, 1967. The makeup of the lej at the time was heavily Republican.

            Part of the Republican rationale for eliminating the charge-backs, the Democrat and Chronicle reported, "is the belief they are inequitable."

            "Welfare is a community problem," Majority Leader Robert Neilon told the D&C at the time.

            Assistant Majority Leader Richard Rosenbaum, of Penfield, echoed these sentiments in the same article.

            "The city is an integral part of the community, and we cannot turn our backs on its problems," he said.

            Abolishing the charge-backs was expected to save the city $1 million.

            The plan also called for the elimination of the welfare districts in the 19 towns, incorporating them into the single county district.

            Legislators at the time, the D&C reported, "spoke of the action as an important step toward metropolitan government."

            Metropolitan government and city-county cooperation "are expected to be the main issues in this fall's battle over control of City Hall and the County Building," the D&C reported in February, 1967.

            The article goes on to say that Republicans argue that the only way to insure metro government "is to give the GOP control of both the city and the county. Democrats will respond that the metropolitan government concept is just a political power play... aimed at stripping the city of its autonomy and its services."

Present-day Majority Leader Bill Smith says the Republican amendment to the Doyle budget should be ready any time now. If the lej doesn't pass a budget by December 9, Doyle's budget proposal automatically goes into effect.

            Smith shared a few details of the Republican plan: Sales tax hike? Out. Property tax increase? Not part of the deal, as of Tuesday. School nurses? Out. Safety Net shift? A last resort, according to Smith, "because of the obvious implications for the city."

            Who pays for Safety Net will depend on whether or not Republicans can achieve the savings they need to plug the $42 million deficit through cuts.

            Cuts will come in programs and "the operations side of county departments," Smith says. Republicans have been meeting with department heads to find areas of "institutional inertia" that can be cut, Smith says.

            Republicans are also looking at "a major cut in social services," he says, although he is concerned whether or not social services can sustain additional cuts following this year's reorganization.

            "That's the last big doubt in my mind," he says.

            The Republican "concept," as Smith calls it, has 16 votes --- the entire Republican caucus --- behind it. Republicans need 18 votes to be able to override a Doyle veto. That would require getting two Democrats to come on board.

            He has spoken to Doyle, Smith says, and the county executive has promised to evaluate any amendment in good faith.

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