The Chris Collins team told hundreds of working poor families at the start of 2010 that Erie County could no longer afford to help them with their child care expenses. The move triggered widespread protests, and Collins later changed course when state government delivered more money for child care subsidies than expected.
But when aides to the county executive closed the books on 2010, they reported spending $7.1 million less than they initially budgeted for child care, despite their concerns that the well would run dry last year.
The money has been carried over into the current year to help the working poor and families on welfare pay for day care. County officials say it will also cover gaps created if the state and federal governments cut their contributions to the multimillion-dollar program. The state recently cut $3 million from its grant to Erie County for the state's current budget year.
"Just because county government gets a dollar doesn't mean the dollar should be spent," Collins spokesman Grant Loomis said, "especially when you jeopardize the stability of the child care subsidy program and risk adversely impacting local taxpayers."
The subsidies help low-income workers cover their day care expenses so they can remain employed and move up the income ladder.
As recently as 2009, Erie County allowed child care subsidies for families earning up to 200 percent of the poverty level. But for the start of 2010, the Social Services Department cut eligibility back to 125 percent of the poverty level because state aid for the program was declining, and Collins refused to tap into the county's surplus fund to cover gaps in state or federal support for programs that continue year after year.
Families and their advocates at nonprofit agencies protested as they adjusted day care arrangements for some 1,100 children. "Step in my shoes to see what I go through on a day-to-day basis," said one woman affected, Lashauna Jones of Buffalo, whose day care expenses for her two children were about to triple as she continued with her job and her studies to become a registered nurse.
In April 2010, when the state began a fiscal year without a state budget, the Collins team still feared a deficit in the program and stopped taking applications. Then in August, after seeing more aid than expected, they reversed course by allowing subsidies to families earning up to 175 percent of the poverty level, or $38,587 a year for a family of four.
That's where the Collins administration wants eligibility to remain for the foreseeable future.
"We don't want to put anyone at all through that ever again," Carol M. Dankert, county social services commissioner, recently told The Buffalo News, almost midway through the county's first full year covering families at 175 percent of the poverty level. "We want to have a sustainable strategy here," she said.
The state Office of Children and Family Services, which administers "Child Care Block Grants" in New York, had faulted the county for its 2010 machinations and its failure to anticipate looming drawdowns in state support, a charge that Dankert challenged at the time.
A series of moving parts complicates any county's handling of its block grant. New York State and the federal government operate under different budget years. So do counties. As a result, most counties guess at how much to set aside for child care in a calendar year months before the state tells them how much they will get.
Further, while the state determines how much each county receives based on its three-year average of claims, it also adjusts the totals based on how much the state can afford.
Through no fault of its own, Erie County's aid for the state budget year that began April 1 fell by about $3 million to $23.6 million. That sum subsidizes day care expenses for the working poor and families on welfare, who are automatically eligible for the grants.
The Office of Children and Family Services looks at how much each county rolls over from the end of a federal budget year to the next. When the current federal budget year began on Oct 1, 2010, Erie County rolled over an extra $3.4 million it had not spent. That's not too much by the state's standards, and the state agency has not faulted Erie County for rolling over the money.
But at Dec. 31, the end of the county's 2010 budget year, the program had $7.1 million available in a combination of the outside money and county tax dollars that county officials had expected to spend, according to the county's year-end reports. Some county lawmakers were surprised to learn about the multimillion-dollar pool this week.
Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, a Buffalo Democrat who had fielded complaints from suddenly disqualified recipients in 2010, asked Budget Director Gregory G. Gach at a recent committee meeting why the county would not spend the money on day care if it was available.
She indicated she would like Dankert to explain the matter before a Legislature committee. That could occur when the Social Services commissioner appears during the Legislature's midyear budget hearings.