Southern Tier residents gathered on Wednesday night to learn more about the upcoming New York state budget and the effect it may have on their communities.

The forum, hosted by Citizen Action of New York and held at Catholic Charities of Broome County, aimed to bring light to problems of wealth and equality that affect New Yorkers.

Peter Cook, executive director of the New York State Council of Churches, represents around 7,000 congregations around the state, and said he and several others have embarked on a 14-stop statewide tour to discuss the issues, teaming up with local organizations along the way. He works with Ron Deutsch, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, and the Reverend Dustin Wright, president of the New York State Council of Churches, to encourage citizens to push for funding human services and education. To do so, the team advocates for higher taxes on upper-class individuals and property tax relief for counties and municipalities.

“I’m here to help frame what we have been discussing in a more theological way,” Wright said. “We ask ourselves, ‘How does this fit into how we should morally live a good life?’”

According to Wanda Campbell, a member of Citizen Action of New York, the budget-making process is often skewed to benefit the wealthy because the influence of corporate money, which makes it extremely important to encourage public financing for state elections. If candidates don’t receive corporate money while running for a position, they are less likely to feel beholden to corporate donors.

Campbell advocates for the “small donor matching system,” which would encourage candidates from different backgrounds to raise large numbers of small contributions which would be matched by public funds. She estimates the program would cost each New York resident about $2 per year. Campbell said the initiative has been proven successful in surrounding states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut.

“We consider the fair election initiative the key to getting a fair budget proposal passed,” Campbell said. “This is make-or-break and hopefully the political changes in the state Senate will garner support so we can start electing people who support our goals and bring attention to the problems at hand.”

In the meantime, speakers at the forum discussed the importance of investing in new strategies to include citizens who are historically disenfranchised and those who were left behind during the state’s economic recovery from the 2008 recession. They also encouraged attendees to do research on the state budget and make their voices heard.

Rebecca Casstevens, 70, of Binghamton, said she wants to see economic improvement in her community.

“I see poverty around me, which not only affects my property value but my quality of life,” Casstevens said. “I see suffering. This is not a trivial matter. This is probably the most important thing on the political map for anyone who lives in this area and we need change.”

In Broome County, the median household income is $47,744, the 15th-lowest in the state. By informing attendees about a new budgeting approach and the influence of corporate money in politics, Cook said he hopes to forge a better way forward, with New York state bearing more costs of the programs that towns and counties are unequipped to pay for.

“We believe the state has a role to play in helping to deal with this wealth and equality for our burdened communities,” Cook said.