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Castelli Holds State Budget Forum in White Plains

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – New York State Assembly member Robert Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge) got an earful about the proposed 2012-13 New York budget’s shortcomings and the $130 billion spending plan’s successes at a Wednesday forum in the White Plains Library.

Castelli described the budget, which reduces spending by $225 million, as a prudent way to bridge a $2 billion deficit “without gimmicks.” However, he sympathized with speakers, such as Mae Carpenter, the Westchester Department of Senior Programs and Services Commissioner, SUNY students, Visiting Nurse Service of Westchester staff, and educators who collectively complained the plan neglected Westchester’s youth and seniors.

Carpenter said previous cuts to the Elderly Pharmaceutical Insurance Coverage (EPIC) program had seniors struggling and the proposal to slash the $232.4 million program budget in half next year would force many to skimp on prescriptions and wind up sick.

“I’ve gone to drug stores where the elderly have now been told that your prescription drug will now cost $100 when before it cost $25,” said Carpenter. “The person said, ‘I can’t afford it.’”

Castelli vowed to fight for EPIC funding to be restored to its current amount.

Lisa Davis, executive director of the Westchester-Putnam Association of School Boards , urged Castelli to pressure the state legislature into offering relief to municipalities struggling to fund mandated programs and pass a school budget that doesn’t raise the property tax levy more than 2 percent.

“As soon as the crisis hit, we really realized that the times had changed and we needed to budget according to that new normal,” Davis said of the region’s median tax levy increase of 2 percent during the past three years. “The first year, you make some cuts. They’re a little more around the edges, but you always try to stay outside of the classroom. The next year you can’t make the same cuts, so you cut a little deeper. Now the next year will be year four and we’re really getting into the classroom.”

She appreciated a 4.1 percent increase in state education aid, but said it did little to counteract the 16 percent funding cuts schools have swallowed over the past three years.

Castelli then heard from the other end of the education spectrum, as SUNY Purchase students urged him to revoke the SUNY “20/20” tuition plan that began a five-year annual $300 tuition hike last year.

Alexandra Wocjik, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) project coordinator at SUNY Purchase , said the cumulative $1,500 tuition increase will saddle too many graduates with “tremendous debt.”

“NYPIRG has already seen how the perfect storm of a persistent recession, the rising cost of living and a spike in tuition has negatively impacted struggling students and those who would like to attend college but cannot,” said Wocjik.

Geovanna Borden, a freshman at SUNY Purchase, said the state should up its community college funding to help “tens of thousands of low-income students who may also have ongoing jobs or family responsibilities” access higher education.

Castelli said he would like to see community college funding increased. He touted the proposed $113.3 million funding increase for SUNY and $66.6 million increase for CUNY, and defended the “20/20” plan as a way to avoid forcing out students with a drastic tuition increase.

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