By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — A group of state legislators joined health care service employees and members of the developmentally disabled community on Friday to protest a proposed $120 million cut in funding to the New York State Office of People with Developmental Disabilities.
Local businessman Joseph Cecconi stood in front of a group of about 100 with his daughter, Mary Jo, who is deaf and suffers from a disease that is slowly taking her sight, as he explained what the cuts would mean for agencies like Opportunities Unlimited in Niagara Falls where the press conference was held.
"She's developed into quite a young lady," Cecconi said pointing to Mary Jo. "Pretty much everything that's happened is a result of the services provided by this agency. She's just one of many."
Cecconi had trouble holding back tears as he spoke of the sense of fulfillment Mary Jo gets from her workshop job. She brought her report card with her to the press conference at the Opportunities Unlimited location on Factory Outlet Boulevard in order to show the audience.
"It's not about us parents," Cecconi said.
The funding cut was included in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed budget as part of his 30-day amendments. Not-for-profits that serve the developmentally disabled community would be hurt by the 6 percent reduction twice over, as that budget line is matched by the federal government. That would mean agencies throughout the state would see $240 million less than what was originally included in Cuomo's budget plan when he rolled it out in January.
The budget amendment was put in place in an effort to fill a $500 million budget gap that has emerged since the federal government announced changes in how it will reimburse the state for its costs related to caring for people with developmental disabilities.
State lawmakers, including Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, R-Clarence, Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-Lewiston and Assemblyman Raymond Walter, R-Amherst, held the press conference on Friday to discuss the proposed funding reductions.
Maziarz looked out into the crowd where agency employees and members of the disabled community held banners that read "keep our funding" and "don't forget us" and said he wants to see the funding for the line in the budget fully restored.
"There's one cut that New York state and the families can't afford and that's this cut to the (developmentally disabled) community," Maziarz said.
Corwin, a member of the state's Spending and Government Efficiency Commission, has identified a surplus in the state's mortgage insurance fund reserve as one possible source to pull money from to restore the OPWDD funds.
"I believe we can pull $120 million from there," Corwin said.
The state should be seeking to move more services for the developmentally disabled from state-run facilities, which have higher costs of operation, to not-for-profit agencies.
"Now would be a great time for us to start more aggressively converting from the state facilities to the private facilities," Corwin said.
Walter identified Medicaid - which has a $56 billion line in this year's budget - as a possible pool of money to draw from in order to restore the money.
"This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, this is an issue about the people who are affected by this draconian, non-sensical cut." Walter said.
Ceretto brought a stack of emails sent to his office by people asking him to help get the funding restored. During the press conference, he waved them in front of the crowd.
"I want you to know, your voices are being heard in my office," Ceretto said raising his voice. "They're going to be heard in the governor's office tomorrow, next week and next year and we're going to hand deliver (the emails) to the governor."