“We will absolutely go to court and we will sue for contempt of court,” he said. “But we are hopeful the mayor will withdraw this unconscionable proposal. It is illegal and contemptuous, in every sense of the word.”
HousingWorks, New York City AIDS Housing Network, and others who work with and on behalf of very poor people living with AIDS say Mayor Bloomberg's proposed cuts violate a city law and would put the administration in contempt of a U.S. Circuit Court ruling on AIDS services.
“You never expect your mayor to flout the law,” said Merjian.
The cuts included in the mayor's proposed budget last week would eliminate 248 caseworkers at HASA. The caseworkers provide intensive case management for 11,000 poor people living with AIDS who live in subsidized apartments and need help accessing other public services, such as food stamps and Medicaid.
Established at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, HASA was so underfunded during Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's first term that caseworkers toiled under massive caseloads and the agency barely operated, critics say. HousingWorks filed a suit on behalf of 40,000 HASA clients who it alleged were being discriminated against by the systematic underfunding. And the City Council enacted local law 49, which set client to caseworker ratios at 34:1.
The lawsuit, Henrietta B. vs. Giuliani, was argued all the way to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (one step below the Supreme Court), where a judge ruled in 2000 on behalf of the people with AIDS, writing, “HASA had chronically and systematically failed to provide clients access to their public assistance benefits, with devastating consequences.”
The ruling required that the city maintain the client to caseworker ratio established in local law 49. But if the mayor's proposed cuts are approved next month, caseloads will sky rocket.
“For Bloomberg to suggest that he is going to eliminate one third of staff is going to destroy HASA and render it ineffective. And it would put the city in blatant contempt,” said Merjian. “In hard times you do not balance the budget on the back so of the most poor, the most needy.”
A spokesman for the mayor's office did not return calls seeking comment and explanation of the mayor's position.
Most city agencies, from parks to schools to youth services and libraries are facing steep budget reductions, as City Hall struggles to face down a yawning deficit and anticipates sharply reduced aid from Albany.
An estimated 150 to 200 people rallied outside City Hall Wednesday in opposition to the HASA cuts and to reduced funding for infant mortality prevention programs, school nurses, asthma and HIV/AIDS prevention and programs for physically disabled children. District Council 37, Brooklyn Council of Churches and the New York State Nurses Association were among the protestors.
“The goal is to basically make sure that the City Council knows that their electorate cares about these matters, cares about poor people, about children, so they don't just capitulate to the mayor,” said David Thorpe, director of communications for HousingWorks.