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Refugee havens feel an Erie County budget knife

Nearly two decades ago, Dr. Myron and Joyce Glick opened a health clinic on Buffalo’s West Side to help refugees fleeing war-torn countries and poverty-stricken conditions.

Now, more than 1,200 refugees, as well as native-born low-income residents, each week walk through the doors of Jericho Road Community Health Center, on Barton Street, and a smaller clinic on the East Side. The medical care and social services save the county money, and Jericho Road has done it all without a cent of county support.

After 18 years, the Glicks sought county funds for the first time, and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz responded by putting $100,000 in his proposed budget. But the County Legislature on Tuesday cut that request in half, to $50,000.

In addition, the Legislature also cut in half the $60,000 that Poloncarz proposed for the Burmese Community Support Center, which assimilates some of thousands of refugees from Burma now living on the West Side and Riverside. The federal government had provided that money in the past but eliminated the grant for the coming year.

“The disappointment is that in a year with a surplus, the Legislature would target two organizations that serve refugees,” said Glick, who grew up in Lancaster and in Belize, where his father served as a Mennonite pastor.

“These are people who are fleeing really horrible situations. What we should be doing is not cutting resources that help these folks, but embracing them. We should want to see them thrive.”

The cuts occurred, said Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, because legislators looked for places to reduce the county’s tax burden, and Poloncarz ultimately dropped his opposition. He said county lawmakers also had questions about both organizations.

“There were questions left unanswered as to, I guess, the value of the services that they were providing,” Lorigo said about Jericho Road.

Poloncarz said Jericho Road’s services and programs that treat and help assimilate refugees mimic in many ways what the county provides, saving the county money. About 90 percent of the city’s refugees settle on the West Side, and most get medical attention at Jericho Road.

“Jericho Road has done tremendous work for the greater community. They have been growing so much, and I think that if we didn’t have a Jericho Road there, the county would have had to step in and potentially do its own health clinic,” Poloncarz said.

Jericho Road’s annual budget is $11 million, so the $50,000 is not a big sum. But it still would help the practice maintain its ever-growing mission.

In March, Jericho Road absorbed Vive, which shelters asylum seekers on the East Side seeking to resettle in the United States or Canada. Reflecting growing demand for health services, Jericho Road saw 12,115 patients in fiscal 2015, up from 11,653 the previous year, according to Jessie Mossop, the information services and reporting manager.

The funds that Jericho Road sought were specifically to support one of its eight community-development programs, the Hope Refugee Drop-In Center, located a few blocks from the clinic.

Poloncarz said he didn’t know if the Legislature’s stance was related to the continuing debate over resettling Syrian refugees. His willingness to allow future Syrian refugees to settle in Western New York prompted a disagreement with Lorigo in November.

“I do think we have a proven track record of assimilating refugees who often are leaving war-torn or politically turbulent areas to find a new life here and become Americans, and we should not turn our backs on them,” Poloncarz said.

“These organizations help people become self-sufficient. If we can spend a tiny amount of money like this, we can save millions in the long run on public assistance costs.”

Lorigo also said lawmakers were unable to determine why the federal government had not renewed its $60,000 grant to the Burmese Community Support Center. He sent a letter Wednesday showing support and asking that at least some of the center’s funding be restored.