Legislators listen to Riverdale, county needs

By Justin Boron

Clayton County state legislators met with citizens and community leaders in Riverdale this weekend to explain the scope of the state's proposed health and education, budget cuts and their challenge to the community.

Local advocates for hospitals and schools asked their Democratic representatives in the Riverdale City Council chamber to continue the fight despite the adversity they face as the members of the minority party in the House and the Senate.

Sen. Valencia Seay, D-College Park, chairman of the county delegation, guarded against the appearance that she and her colleagues were powerless.

"I'm proud to be a Democrat," she said, adding that ground can still be gained in the difficult situation. "We all know you can score on defense."

Education and health have seen significant budget cuts in the past, said Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, D-Riverdale.

"We have $1 billion in new revenue in Georgia, and yet (Gov. Sonny Perdue's) budget drastically cuts K-12 education by $333 million and does nothing to stop the ever-increasing cost of tuition for students and families," Abdul Salaam said. "(Perdue's) budget also leaves a $130 million gap in Medicaid and cuts reimbursement rates to rural an urban hospitals, which are struggling to stay in business."

Barbara Pulliam, the superintendent of county schools, warned local lawmakers of the dangers that legislation could present the school system if $60,000 worth of unfunded mandates are enacted.

She also said legislation requiring a reduction in class size would be a huge setback for the school system financially.

"Smaller class sizes work, but they've got to give us some money," she said.

Abdul-Salaam, who helped organize the meeting, said she has been asking for money to support smaller class sizes.

Gloria Duncan, the principal of Riverdale High School, traversed the risks of cutting educational funding as well, asking for her representatives to continue the "good fight."

Halfway through the meeting, speakers gravitated toward the difficulties hospitals face across the state because of the proposed budget.

Ed Bonn, president of Southern Regional Medical Center, said 60 percent of the hospitals in Georgia are operating at a loss.

"The crisis is very real. It's at our doorstep," he said.

Over the past two years, more than $70 million has been cut out of the Medicaid budget for the state, Bonn said.

"Our contribution to the budgets has already been made," he said. "Hospitals cannot accept another round of steep Medicaid budget cuts."

Seay blamed Republicans for the damage done to hospitals.

"It's a painful situation that we're in, and it's because of the other party," she said.

Juvenile Court Judge Stephen Teske, known for his progressive stance on juvenile justice, advocated a bill that would keep more juvenile offenders out of restrictive-custody, boot camp programs.

Teske criticized the current law that allows judges to sentence juveniles to 90 days in restrictive custody.

"This program is making criminals out of our kids," he said.