“Veterans matter!” chanted the demonstrators at the steps of City Hall.
About 60 people, including three candidates for the 2017 mayoral race, rallied Feb. 1 to protest a funding decrease for the Department of Veterans Services in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year. “We are here unified today as New Yorkers,” said the Rev. Michel Faulkner, a mayoral candidate. “A gathering of citizens, clergy and elected officials to say we will not accept the proposed cuts to the budget for New York City veterans affairs.”
“We gather here today on these steps to remind our city government that in a budget of $85 billion, surely — $3.6 million — we can do better than that,” said Faulkner.
The mayor’s preliminary budget was released on Jan. 24 with $3.63 million allocated for the Department of Veterans Services, around $300,000 less than this year’s $3.95 million.
Joe Bello, a member of the Veterans Advisory Board, said the mayor’s decision to cut the department’s funding in its second year of existence was bad “optics.”
“Going into the second year of the budget, and we’re already looking at a cut to veterans’ services,” he said. “We’ve come too far. We certainly want to see better and we want to see more — where was the forward thinking of this administration in the preliminary budget?”
The de Blasio administration has defended the decrease as a number of one-time costs associated with the start of the new office. Raul Contreras, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said those costs include desks, chairs, computers and the services of a consultant who advised the city on how to start the new department.
“You wouldn’t spend money on those things again, because you don’t need two computers, you don’t need two desks,” Contreras said. “The core funding for the resources that we provide across the five boroughs — that remains intact.”
But opponents of the proposed budget insist that the decrease shows the mayor’s administration doesn’t prioritize the needs of the city’s roughly 210,000 veterans.
Mayoral hopeful and former police officer Bo Dietl said the city needed to do more to help homeless veterans.
“I’ll be damned if we don’t take care of our veterans,” Dietl said. “What they’ve done for us — that’s why America is America.
“And I got something for Mayor de Blasio,” he added. “You want know where you can find the money — how about the $12 million in public funds that you’re spending to protect yourself?” Dietl asked, referring to reports that the city may pay 11.65 million to several law firms defending the mayor and his aides in several corruption investigations.
Brooklyn resident and lifelong New Yorker Robert Liebowitz said he was at the rally for his father, two of his uncles and his father-in-law — all of whom are veterans.
“When I see a veteran homeless on the subway, it really breaks my heart,” Liebowitz said. “This country, the city, the state does not take care of its veterans.”
Contreras said the de Blasio administration has worked to end veteran homelessness and that 90 to 95 percent of homeless veterans are sheltered.
Helene Van Clief, who served in the Army from 1977 to 1986, and showed up Wednesday afternoon clad in a camouflage jacket, said she was there to advocate on behalf of women veterans.
“Most of the women veterans have very bad psych issues,” Van Clief said. “Are you going tell me every women who came into the military had psych issues before they got in?”
Businessman and mayoral candidate Paul Massey, state Sen. Joe Addabbo and Public Advocate Letitia James also voiced their support for Wednesday’s rally.
“Any attempts to cut back on those who made the ultimate sacrifice so that I can speak freely, so that all of us can be free, should be fought back with resistance,” James said. “I stand here with all of these veterans.”