STATEN ISLALND — The cost of translation is too high in any language, according to two of Staten Island’s city councilmen.
A recent analysis by the city’s budget watchdog reports that it will cost nearly $29 million this year to provide language access services to hospital patients, parents of public school students and other city residents with limited English skills.
The Independent Budget Office study was prompted by City Councilmen James Oddo (R-Mid-Island/Brooklyn) and Vincent Ignizio (R-South Shore), in response to a growing movement to widen the requirements for such services.
Last June, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed Executive Order 120, requiring every city agency to provide language assistance in the top six languages spoken by New Yorkers. Bloomberg trumpeted further plans to ease the transition for immigrants at a campaign event at CUNY’s campus in Midtown Manhattan yesterday, including adding $3 million toward English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and lobbying the state Legislature to adopt a similar language access plan.
The new language policies will add $1.7 million to the $26.9 million the agencies already spend on translation services, according to the IBO. The Health and Hospitals Corporation spent $10.9 million in fiscal year 2009, the Department of Education was a distant second at $4 million; the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications spent $3.9 million, and the New York City Housing Authority spent $3.5 million.
With the city expecting a deficit of $5 billion in the next budget and even tougher fiscal times ahead, Oddo and Ignizio believe the money could be better spent.
"People have different priorities, I respect that. But for Vinnie and I, it’s about essential services. Every dollar spent on translation services is a dollar less that the city has to hire more police officers or to keep firehouses operating," Oddo said.
"Once again, we are faced with the reality that budgets are finite and to spend nearly $27 million on translation services at a time when we are cutting schools and emergency services boggles the mind. Not to mention that these services only continue the crutch that some need to shed in order to reach their full potential by learning the English language and fully assimilating into the New York melting pot," Ignizio contended.
But Javier Valdes, deputy director ofthe Port Richmond-based immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York, said the translation requirements are essential "to operate a city as diverse as ours." Those services help facilitate critical understanding between people with limited English proficiency and hospital workers, police, teachers and other school officials, for example, and help remove a fundamental barrier to citizenship, he added.
Studies also show that immigrants are learning English faster than ever before because they have a financial incentive to do so, Valdes noted.
"They are motivated to learn English because at the end of the day, it’s going to affect their bottom line," he said.
A spokesman for the mayor also defended the policies.
"Councilmen Oddo and Ignizio have been our crucial partners on a wide variety of initiatives to keep Staten Island and all of New York moving forward, but we just don’t agree with them on this one. We think dedicating that money toward helping our newest immigrants get the health care, education and other government services they need is a good investment for all of New York’s future," said spokesman Stu Loeser.