Legal Services of New York City, the largest federally-funded civil legal services program in the country is considering a move to consolidate its Brooklyn offices in order to centralize operations.
Senior officials at Legal Services of NYC, the parent organization of Brooklyn Corporation A, South Brooklyn Legal Services, and Bedford Stuyvesant Legal Services, stressed that the decision to restructure was derived not from financial pressures but from a desire to make the organization more efficient as the need for legal assistance from low-income clients and community organizations has grown. In 2008, Legal Services absorbed a cut of $1.8 million, about one-quarter of its funding from the city, though nearly all of it was restored by the City Council this year.
“The Brooklyn offices are a historic accident,” said Legal Services Executive Director Andrew Scherer. “They were not organized in a thoughtful way. We determined in our organization that we need to step back and think strategically how we can best use our resources for Brooklyn. That may involve consolidation.”
Attorneys for Brooklyn Legal Services first learned of the proposal in November 2008, when Scherer circulated a memo initiating the discussion of the need for consolidation. In March 2009, a Brooklyn Planning Committee was formed, involving several board members, senior staff, community-based organization leaders and other stakeholders to discuss preliminary findings.
The Legal Services Board is expected to hear Scherer’s plan for administrative changes in November and vote in December at its monthly board meeting.
“No decision has been made yet. No proposal has been drafted in the data-collecting phase,” said Legal Services CFO Tony Butler.
Details of the proposal remain vague, although Scherer noted that its Brooklyn offices consist of a “jury-rigged system with a lot of overlap and confusion for clients.” He dismissed advancing an idea to combine offices throughout the borough into a central site in downtown Brooklyn.
“There’s nothing on the table about closing offices. There’s certainly the possibility of making administrative changes. That’s very different than closing offices and removing services,” said Scherer. “I can tell you that we are completely and thoroughly committed to making services structured and not removing existing services from the communities we serve.”
Jessica Rose, an attorney with Brooklyn Corporation A in East New York (80 Jamaica Avenue), has not been assuaged by messages from Legal Services’ Manhattan headquarters. She believes that administrative changes will lead to the closure of branch offices or the collection of services, such as foreclosure prevention, in one location.
“I believe the quality of our services and the depth of the services is directly related to being based in the community with them,” said Rose. “As their counsel I am a better attorney because of our location in the community and because of our close relationship with the community.”
Marty Needelman, director of Brooklyn Corporation A, chastised the process for his program’s restructuring, claiming that LSNY’s analysis is being used to “justify predetermined decisions to consolidate” after observing how his parent organization has been collecting and evaluating data regarding administrative changes for the past several months.
“Decisions about priorities and how services are delivered is as important as the location of the offices in the neighborhood,” said Needelman.
Councilmember Diana Reyna (D-Williamsburg) Evelyn Cruz, a constituent liaison for Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-Williamsburg), attended a rally on October 13 at LSNY headquarters (350 Broadway, Manhattan) with BLS staff and nearly 200 North Brooklyn residents, to protest the planned consolidation during LSNY’s monthly board meeting.
“They’re in the tower, they’re not in the trenches,” said Cruz. “The needs of Williamsburg are different from Bushwick and East New York. These boutique legal services those offices provide are important to the community and they are sensitive to constituents they serve.”
After the rally, the group stormed up to LSNY’s 6th Floor office, to testify during the board meeting’s public session.
“Our community has survived decade after decade because of services provided by Brooklyn Corporation A. This is live or die. Today we’re here to tell our story,” said Reyna, addressing the crowd. “You are the face of the community. When LSNY forgets that, you must remind them.”
Scherer objected to arguments against centralization, instead believing that administrative changes will improve services for all Brooklyn clients.
“These are not a collection of five organizations from Brooklyn taking money from an outside funder,” said Scherer. “This is a whole organization trying to have a discussion of how to serve Brooklyn and make sense of that.”
Brooklyn Legal Services consists of five branches, including Brooklyn Corporation A, South Brooklyn Legal Services, Bedford Stuyvesant Community Legal Services, Brooklyn Family Defense Project, and the Legal Services NYC Brooklyn Branch.
Brooklyn Corporation A, founded in 1967 when it was created as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative has a staff of 40, including 22 attorneys, with offices located in Bushwick, East New York and Williamsburg.