Bloomberg Backs Down on AIDS Cuts

Housing Works suit leads mayor to abandon efforts to slash caseworkers

Threatened with a court battle by Housing Works, a leading AIDS services organization, the Bloomberg administration abandoned plans to cut 248 of the current 850 case manager positions at New York City’s HIV/ AIDS Services Administration (HASA).

“We will not be attritting out or redeploying any of the HASA case managers,” said Roy A. Esnard, the general counsel at the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), at a June 24 hearing in federal court before Magistrate Judge Cheryl Pollak. “That leaves in place the 248 case managers.”

Facing a shortfall of $4.9 billion in the city’s $63 billion budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins on July 1, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed eliminating the case managers to save $4.2 million in the $8.8 billion HRA budget. HASA is part of HRA.

On June 22, Housing Works went into federal court seeking a restraining order to bar the city from making the cut.

On behalf of several HASA clients, Housing Works sued the city in 1995 over a number of issues related to the agency’s operations, including the ratio of case managers to clients. In 1997, the City Council enacted a law requiring HASA to maintain a ratio of one case manager for 34 clients. That ratio was litigated in the lawsuit, and Housing Works won a 2001 ruling requiring the city to follow the 1997 law.

The latest motion asked the court to enforce the earlier ruling.

“I think that the order in this case couldn’t be clearer,” said Armen Merjian, a senior staff attorney at Housing Works, following the June 24 hearing. “The proposed cuts are clearly illegal.”

Settling the issue is complicated because the Bloomberg administration has already submitted the 2011 budget to the City Council, which is expected to vote on it within days. The city and Housing Works agreed that they would sign a stipulation by the end of the day on June 25 to memorialize the deal.

Pollak also made clear that she was ready to rule, at least temporarily, for Housing Works.

“Frankly, the temporary restraining order is ready to go,” she said, though she added that her preferred solution was a stipulation.

The case managers enroll people with AIDS in food stamp, Medicaid, housing, and other programs. While private AIDS groups offer many services to their clients, only the city case managers can link people with AIDS to government benefits. Currently, HASA serves roughly 45,000 people with AIDS and their dependents.

“We are delighted that the city has decided to withdraw a series of cuts… cuts that would have destroyed HASA,” Merjian said. “Forty-five thousand people with AIDS will breath a sigh of relief today.”

During his eight years in office, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani repeatedly tried to gut or close HASA. Until this year, Bloomberg has not attempted that. In prior years, the City Council has usually restored any HASA cuts. This year, some members objected to the cuts, but it was not clear that they would vote against the budget if it contained the HASA cuts, in part, because they knew Housing Works was likely to sue Bloomberg.

Joining Housing Works in seeking the federal court ruling were the law firm Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady, the HIV Law Project, and attorney Virginia Shubert.

The city’s Law Department and an attorney representing State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo joined HRA in first opposing and then acceding to Housing Works.