Despite pleas from numerous speakers, including some who are unhoused, the Monroe County Legislature approved in a 23 to 6 vote transferring $1.9 million out of the Department of Human Services to fund things like golf courses, parks and the zoo.
The $1.9 million comes out of the safety net assistance fund. These funds are used for cash and housing assistance. Going back many years, the county takes unused money from the safety net fund in the third and fourth quarters for other purposes.
The six legislators who voted against the fund transfer are the ones who represent areas of the city with significant poverty: President Sabrina Lamar, and Legislators Rachel Barnhart, Mercedes Vazquez-Simmons, Ricky Frazier, Carolyn Hoffman, and William Burgess.
“The safety net assistance fund has essentially been operating like a slush fund for county administrations going back many years,” said Legislator Barnhart. “This practice, now that it’s been discovered, needs to stop. We should use excess safety net funds for other anti-poverty programs.”
The county administration used the following claims to protect the longstanding tradition of raiding the fund:
Claim: The county cannot use the funds for other anti-poverty purposes.
Response: This is not true. The county can do lots of things with these funds, including contracting with nonprofits for any number of anti-poverty services. The county could seek to participate in pilots for guaranteed income, housing vouchers and any number of programs we find in other New York State municipalities. The county can find legal ways to participate, including working with state partners if necessary. In addition, the funds could be used to bolster the delivery of existing services.
Claim: Those opposed to the fund transfer are spreading misinformation because the county is not cutting any services.
Response: No legislator equated the Human Services funding cut to a cut of services. This discussion was always about what to do with the extra dollars. In fact, speaker after speaker asked the county to use the excess safety net funds to do more to address needs related to housing and poverty.
Claim: The money would go unspent if it wasn’t transferred out of Human Services.
Response: That is a tragic policy choice by the County Executive and the Legislature. We can and should put those funds to use helping our neighbors in need.
“County Executive Adam Bello is correct that these kinds of transfers have been routine in the past. I’m embarrassed to learn about my own role in voting for this during my first two terms,” said Legislator Barnhart. “The status quo hasn’t moved the needle on poverty in this community in many years. We have funds set aside to address poverty. Let’s use those dollars for their intended purpose.”
On the same day the Legislature voted to raid the safety net slush fund, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the national child poverty rate doubled because of the end of pandemic relief.
The county is expected to raid the safety net slush fund again in the fourth quarter, as officials anticipated a total of $4 million would be unspent by the end of the year.