Safety Net cost jump set to slam city budget

Kingston’s share of payments into the Safety Net welfare program is on track to top $2 million. But unlike last year — when county officials came to the rescue using an unanticipated windfall to offset skyrocketing costs — there is no relief in sight.

Safety Net is a state-mandated program which provides cash assistance to individuals who do not qualify for federally funded welfare programs, whether because they are single adults with no children or they have exceeded time limits imposed on programs, like the federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families.

In Ulster County, and only in Ulster County, Safety Net costs are charged back to the municipalities in which recipients reside. As a result, communities like Kingston and Wawarsing, which have a high proportion of residents living under the poverty line, end up bearing the lion’s share of Safety Net costs while wealthier or more rural towns like Woodstock and Marbletown see minimal impact.

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The disparity has long been a bone of contention between Kingston and other Ulster County communities for years. But the issue took on added urgency in 2011 when the state suddenly altered the Safety Net funding formula.

Previously, the state had absorbed 50 percent of Safety Net costs while counties — or in Ulster’s case, municipalities — took on the remainder. Last year’s state budget, however, shifted the burden. Counties now must pay 71 percent of the Safety Net bill while the state takes on just 29 percent. The shift threatened to blow huge holes in municipal budgets, which had already been finalized. The budget crisis was averted when County Executive Mike Hein proposed releasing $1.4 million in unanticipated revenue (which came from an alteration in the state/county funding formula for another welfare program) to municipalities to offset the unexpected increase in Safety Net expenses. This year, however, County Legislator Kevin Roberts (R-Plattekill), said Ulster County municipalities should not expect a repeat.

“My position is that there should be no further bailouts for the city or the towns,” said Roberts, who heads the legislature’s Social Services Committee. “That money has already been plugged into the county budget and [giving it to municipalities] would mean we would either have to raise taxes on county taxpayers or cut county services.”

Crisis for city

In Kingston, Safety Net costs are climbing sharply. The payments are tabulated on a monthly basis, with the total entered into the next year’s budget and passed along to taxpayers. According to City Comptroller John Tuey, Kingston taxpayers were on the hook for $1.18 million in Safety Net costs for all of 2011. Year-to-date numbers for 2012, meanwhile, show the city has already spent $1.96 million on Safety Net with four months to go before the final tab is tallied. According to Mayor Shayne Gallo, each $150,000 in added expenditures equals a 1 percent property tax levy increase. By that reasoning, the increase in Safety Net costs alone could force the city over the state-imposed 2 percent property tax hike cap without deep cuts in municipal services.

Gallo blamed the city’s Safety Net woes on a web of circumstances, including the state’s 30-day residency requirement for welfare — which means that even short-termKingstonresidents can end up on the Safety Net rolls — to Kingston’s abundance of rental housing, public transportation and social service facilities, which make it an attractive destination for the down and out. According to Gallo, over the past decade the situation has gotten worse as city and county officials paved the way for more and more subsidized rental units and other housing where Safety Net recipients, some with roots far outside of Kingston, end up.

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