Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this year’s executive budget. My name is Rachel Halperin and I am the Chief Executive Officer of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV).
Thank you for your continued support of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV), the only provider of comprehensive, free civil legal services to low income and vulnerable individuals and families in Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Ulster, Orange, Rockland and Sullivan Counties. LSHV has nine offices; four of which are in Westchester County where 46% of all clients served live.
LSHV represents your constituents facing life altering hardships because they have civil legal problems affecting the most fundamental aspects of their lives, but can’t afford an attorney and are not entitled to one without cost.
LSHV’s testimony today will focus on five key budgetary issues:
• Restoration of funding for Attorney Services for Crime Victims through the Office of Victim Services (OVS) in a 30 day budget amendment or alternatively, through a legislative addition;
• Restoration of and increased funding for Civil Legal Services through the
Legal Services Assistance Fund (LSAF);
• Increasing the Governor’s proposed $20 million funding with an additional $15 million for the Homeowners Protection Program (HOPP), which will prevent foreclosures and zombie properties and will stabilize Westchester communities;
• Restoration of funding for the Disability Advocacy Project at the same level as last year; and
• Maintaining funding to LSHV’s Veteran’s and Military Families Project at the same level as last year, which provides legal services to veterans and their families in Westchester and Putnam Counties.
Civil legal services are the last line of defense for victims of domestic violence seeking safety and stability, families facing eviction or foreclosure, elderly victims of financial abuse seeking restitution, and parents seeking health care for their children. Redress, protection, security and stability is often available – only if one can navigate daunting legal systems against overwhelming odds. Few of us would attempt to resolve legal issues that put the roof over our head, our safety, or our children’s health at risk without the benefit of counsel and yet every day in Westchester County, thousands of poor and low-income families are doing just that. The need for civil legal assistance in matters affecting the essentials of life for low-income families and individuals living at or below 200% of the federal poverty level in Westchester County is overwhelming, with 200,000 people eligible for LSHV’s assistance. In 2021 in Westchester, LSHV handled 5,551 cases, which impacted a total of 12,620 household members.
Of great urgency this year is the restoration of funding to the Attorney Services for Crime Victims contracts through OVS. In 2018, through an RFP, OVS funded 61 providers to create a statewide network of legal services attorneys assisting crime victims in a vast list of areas including: orders of protection, custody, divorce, immigration, bankruptcy, eviction prevention, consumer, elder abuse, and disability. The total funding for this Program was $16.7 million/year for five-years.
As a result of this funding, LSHV created 20 new positions and since 2018, has provided legal services to over 1,138 crime victims in 1,900 cases throughout the Hudson Valley.
Last month, OVS notified all of the providers that because of a decline in federal VOCA funding coming to New York, it would be terminating the Attorney Services contracts one year early, effective September 2022. Consequently, LSHV like many other providers was forced to immediately shutter intake and put a freeze on hiring for new positions.
Now is not the time to cut funding for victims of crime. We ask the Legislature to request to the Governor to allocate funding through a 30-day budget amendment to maintain stable funding to all current providers of Attorney Services for Crime Victims for the next two years. Alternately, we ask that the Legislature include this funding in their budget.
Also important this year is funding from the Legal Services Assistance Fund (LSAF), a critical funding stream for civil legal services programs. The Assembly Majority has long been a champion of legal services by supporting the Legal Services Assistance Fund which is used by programs statewide to provide representation in critical human needs. LSHV receives $151,667 from that fund which supports an elder law attorney and is responsible for the creation of our LGBTQ unit. Both serve severely isolated and underfunded low-income communities in need of civil legal services. With that funding LSHV handled cases in the areas of eviction prevention, disability benefits, elder law, and domestic violence.
Starting in 1992-93, the Legislature, through the leadership in the Assembly, has allocated funding for civil legal services in the state budget. This funding was later supported through the Legal Services Assistance Fund (LSAF) through the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and supported by a share of the revenue raised through payments for criminal records searches.
Through the joint efforts of the Assembly and Senate, these funds are now allocated each year for a variety of purposes, including Civil Legal Services and legal assistance for veterans and victims of domestic violence. Moreover, since the funds creation, more than half the money it generated was transferred to the General Fund for other purposes unrelated to the fund’s original intent. Last year, a series of changes were made that allowed the criminal portion of the fund to receive and retain a greater share than previous years, increasing it to $12.6 million, while the civil legal services portion was only $3 million.
The Governor included a pot of just over $4 million for the Legislature to allocate and we ask that the civil legal services providers funded in last year’s budget be restored. Additionally, to help expand access to civil legal assistance, we ask that the Legislature commit to dedicating all the money generated by the LSAF toward its intended purpose, providing the remaining $9.8 million dollars that is currently scheduled to get transferred to the General Fund for civil legal services.
I also ask that you support funding the Homeowner Protection Program. New York is seeing the highest delinquency rate ever. Even before the pandemic, foreclosures continued to be a significant problem, but now NYS has unprecedented mortgage delinquency rates, tax defaults and increased threats to homeownership.
The average weekly mortgage delinquency rate in NYS between July and October 2021 was 10.75% (433,423 homeowners on average) according to US Census Household Pulse Survey date. This rate is over three times the delinquency rate in January 2020 of 3.4%.
In July 2022, funding for HOPP runs out. LSHV receives $644,300 annually in NYS Attorney General foreclosure prevention funding for the Hudson Valley and has provided legal services in 354 cases to homeowners in 2021. Please support adding funding of $15 million to the Governor’s proposed $20 million for this statewide innovative program which will take a holistic, regional approach in preventing foreclosures and zombie properties and will stabilize communities across the state.
I ask you to support the DAP – Disability Advocacy Project. This is a statewide, nationally recognized program that provides free legal assistance to low-income and disabled New Yorkers who have been denied Supplement Security Income and/or Social Security Disability (SSI/SSD) benefits and are forced to live on public assistance benefits. This program gets disability benefits for constituents and saves counties and NYS money because people are getting off state and local funded public assistance benefits and obtaining federal benefits. This is a win-win program that deserves your full support.
This year the governor’s executive budget funds DAP at $5.3 million. Last year both houses joined in a bi-partisan manner to add $3 million to the executive budget. LSHV receives $558,493 in DAP funding. We ask that the Legislature add the $3 million this year as well.
Last year LSHV handled 557 cases program-wide and served 251 clients in Westchester County. This saved the County millions of dollars through federally funded dollars from SSI/SSD awards over the past few years. We expect that a DAP budget letter will be circulated and I request that each of you sign onto that letter supporting the DAP program.
Finally, I ask you to support continued funding to support LSHV’s Veterans and Military Families Project which serves Westchester and Putnam Counties. In last year’s budget, the Assembly included $180,000 to LSHV to provide essential civil legal services to veterans and their families in Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess and Ulster Counties. Last year, we served 872 military families in the Hudson Valley.
There are 28,127 in Westchester County and 3,691 in Putnam County. Their needs include housing eviction and foreclosure prevention; family law; consumer law; debt reduction; bankruptcy; Veterans benefits; disability benefits; military discharge upgrades; military records corrections; employment law; and elder law issues, including wills, power of attorney, and healthcare proxies.
Thank you for your consideration, attention and continued support.