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Feeling like a political pawn: Cris Zaffuto, acting president of CSEA Local 828, which represents all city school nurses and nurses' aides.

Christine Carrie Fien

Seventy-seven pink slips

by Christine Carrie Fien

It's about borrowing at a lower versus higher interest rate. It's about pushing expenses into the future. It's about 77 pink slips.

            And somewhere Mother Jones' son wonders who is going to bandage his boo-boo come April 1.

            They sure made a lot of noise, but in the end, county lawmakers were unable to keep the city school district nursing program going. The nurses have traditionally been funded by the county. First, former County Executive Jack Doyle fixed it so the funding ended at the end of this school year. Then the Republican caucus in the county lej further gutted the program, and pink slips for 77 nurses and nurses' aides went out last Friday.

            "We zeroed it out," says Republican Majority Leader Bill Smith. "We had to plug a $42 million hole in the budget."

            Nearly everyone --- politicians and nurses included --- believes that the nurses will be reinstated; that some form of private funding will kick-in to re-establish the program by September. But all the rallies, press conferences, personal pleas, and finger-pointing were unable to stop the pink slips from flowing.

You could almost see this coming. A week before releasing his 2004 budget proposal last October, Doyle held a "better-brace-for-the-bad-news" press conference. Doyle circulated a sheet blaming lej Democrats for $4.8 million in cuts to various programs, including school nursing. It was the Dems' fault, he said, because they shot down the county's attempt to issue bonds to make state-mandated payments for retirement and pension costs.

            Democrats have rejected the bond proposal three times.

            "We believe that it is not fiscally prudent to take a county that's broke and borrow another [$21 million]," says Minority Leader Stephanie Aldersley. "You have to pay it back. It's not found money."

            "It's really a 'spin' kind of situation to tell people that this was about nurses and the Democrats are against nurses," she adds. "We very much want to see the nurses funded... But we believe that the money is there in the budget without doing this borrowing."

            Democrats wanted the county to take $500,000 from its contingency fund to extend the nursing program to the end of the school year. The fund has been used in the past to study algae bed patterns in Lake Ontario and to pay for a portrait of Doyle.

            "Have there been expenditures from the contingency fund in past years for things that don't seem terribly important? Yeah," Smith says. "But, first of all, we're talking about relatively small amounts. We're not talking about $21 million."

            The county needs the $1.5 million in the contingency fund this year, says Lej President Wayne Zyra, to offset projected state revenue hits estimated so far at $7 million.

            "Secondly, we're still in the process of closing out last year's books. Even though you could say there is $1.5 million, in reality, we don't know it's there. You could have additional costs coming through from last year that could totally wipe that contingency out."

There are two ways to make the pension payments: borrow the money from the state comptroller or issue bonds. The latter solution would save the county, Republicans say, $2.8 million this year and about $858,000 over the five-year life of the bond. Everything else, Smith says, is just a smokescreen.

            "Stephanie is dancing all over the place trying to avoid one central fact: the choice is between borrowing at a high interest rate from the comptroller or borrowing at a lower interest rate," he says. "It's not a choice between borrowing or not borrowing."

            Why should the county shell out $500,000 to fund the nurses, Smith asks, when it can use savings achieved by the bonding to fund the program?

            "We could do [$500,000] for the nurses and still be over $2 million ahead of the game for this year," he says.

Caught in the middle are the nurses and nurses' aides, and the city school kids themselves.

            "We really feel like we're the political pawns in all this. We're in the middle of this tug-o-war," says Cris Zaffuto, acting president of CSEA Local 828, which represents all city school nurses and nurses' aides. "The worst part is that this is so stressful on the employees."

            There is an unspoken belief in the community, Zaffuto says, that somebody will do something and nurses will remain in city schools. If that doesn't happen, she says, watch out.

            "That's when you're really going to see the public go bananas," she says. "Don't you think it's time?"

            In some cases, school nurses are city school students' primary health-care providers. Rochester, according to the state ed. department, is the neediest of New York's Big Five school districts.

            "There's a lot of kids with a lot of problems in the schools. We deal with the whole child: mind, body, and spirit," Zaffuto says. "It's difficult to think that these kids are going to go without."

This is for that guy in Fairport who asked Zaffuto why his taxes should pay for city school nurses: The nurses and aides were public health employees working for the county health department, not the city school district.

            "If we had an ice storm tonight and there was a need for shelters, we were the first people that they would call to open shelters," Zaffuto says. "They did last year [during the ice storm], as a matter of fact. People do not realize that."

            "The school health program makes up two-thirds of the health department employees."

            And it's not only city school nurses who lose. Once the pink slips went out, a "bumping" process started within the county health department. If the school nurses and aides have seniority, under Civil Service law, they may "bump out" less senior nurses and aides in other divisions, such as the foster clinic, disease control, and immunizations.

            "They would... see how many positions are left and who has the most seniority to stay as an employee in the county," Zaffuto says. "They look at the big picture, the whole thing."

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