The court action could finally end a long-running dispute between the City of Kingston and county lawmakers over how to fund the state-mandated welfare program for single adults and families which have exceeded the five-year cap on federal welfare benefits. Until 1977, the law required towns and cities to pay half the cost of Safety Net benefits for residents (the state paid the rest). In 1977, a change in state social services law shifted the burden from municipalities to the county. But Ulster never adopted the statute and today is the only one of New York’s 62 counties which continues to charge municipalities for Safety Net costs.
Critics say the system unfairly penalizes taxpayers in Kingston who must pay for Safety Net recipients drawn to the city by its relative abundance of affordable housing, public transportation and social services. Opponents of the current system also claim that it creates a disincentive for towns to support the creation of affordable housing or social services programs.
The lawsuit, filed by attorney Kyle Barnett of the Poughkeepsie-based firm Van DeWater and Van DeWater, names Ulster County Legislature Chairman Fred Wadnola (R- Town of Ulster) and Ulster County Department of Social Services Commissioner Roberto Rodriguez as defendants. The suit asks the court to declare unconstitutional the section of state social services law which gives county lawmakers the option to charge municipalities for Safety Net costs. The suit also asks that the court direct the county legislature to shift the cost of Safety Net to the county, suspend all charges for the program until the new system is in place and award the city monetary damages.
The lawsuit alleges that the municipality-based funding scheme violates the equal protection clauses of the U.S. and New York constitutions by imposing different tax burdens on similarly situated taxpayers in Ulster County.
“There is no rational basis for imposing the demonstrably different tax burdens on similar persons because of their different geographic location and because there are a greater number of [Safety Net] recipients in one locale compared to another of a county-wide public welfare program,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also alleges that the way Safety Net is funded discourages towns outside of Kingston from bringing in additional public welfare programs and encourages the concentration of welfare recipients in Kingston.
“[The County and Department of Social Services] systematically encourage and relocate those persons in need of public assistance into the city because this is currently where the majority of public assistance services are located,” the suit contends. “This further perpetuates the unequal taxing of City of Kingston taxpayers … ”
Barnett said that the lawsuit was the first of its kind in New York State and would rely on cobbling together precedents from many sources.
“The circumstances of this case are a little unique,” said Barnett. “But I think the city has a strong case. … It is an uncontroverted fact that similarly situated individuals are treated differently.”
Another part of the lawsuit will challenge the method used by social services officials to verify addresses of recipients and bill municipalities for the Safety Net program. In February, Sottile discovered that Kingston had been charged Safety Net fees for recipients who lived in surrounding towns but shared the city’s 12401 zip code. The discovery lead to separate audits by County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach and his Kingston counterpart John Tuey, which turned up at least $91,000 in Safety Net fees improperly charged to Kingston.
“There is the distinct possibility that even the way that Ulster County administers the program could result in discrimination,” said Barnett. “Even if it was OK to [charge municipalities for Safety Net recipients] how do we know they are doing it that way? There’s no way to verify it.”
The potential fiscal impact of a court decision shifting Safety Net costs to the city is significant. So far this year, the city has paid out $1.19 million in Safety Net costs, up from $888,000 in all of 2009 and $464,000 in 2004. Meanwhile some communities, like the tiny northern Ulster County hamlet of Hardenburgh, typically pay nothing towards the program because they do not have any recipients residing in town.
Sottile, who requested and received authorization from the Common Council to spend up to $60,000 on the lawsuit, said that he believed legal action was the only recourse after years of failed attempts to reform the system through the county legislature. Sottile added that keeping the burden of Safety Net payments concentrated in Kingston had allowed county leaders to avoid seeking long term solutions to the problem of homelessness in Ulster County.
“The real problem here is homelessness and the fact that the County of Ulster does not any kind of plan to deal with people on Safety Net besides cutting checks to motels,” said Sottile. “If we are successful in this lawsuit it will force them to come up with a plan.”
Sottile called on County Executive Mike Hein to exert influence on the county legislature to address the safety net issue without a costly court fight.
“Clearly I would like to see more leadership on this issue from the county executive, but if we have to resort to the courts, that’s what we’ll do,” said Sottile. “When Hein was the county administrator he came up with a plan for the county to take over Safety Net phased in over seven years and if you offered me that deal right now I’d take it in a second.”
Hein declined to comment on the issue, citing the pending litigation. Hein did say that the decision to absorb Safety Net costs ultimately lies with county lawmakers.
But Wadnola said that it was unlikely that the county legislature would vote to take over Safety Net costs until forced to do so by a court.
“I’m not sure about the merit of the lawsuit, but I can tell you that the legislators outside of Kingston are not going to vote for it because it will cost their towns money,” said Wadnola, who added that he supports county funding for Safety Net. “If they equalized it and the county took over, they would see their tax rates go up.”