by Gregg Heffner, Commissioner Oswego County DSS
This letter is in response to the “Dollars and Sense” submission by Marilyn Nye in the Dec. 12, 2012 edition of The Valley News.
As the commissioner of Oswego County Department of Social Services and the past director of services for the department, I have worked hard to bring focus and efficiencies to the contracted services offered to children and families in our community.
We focus specifically on the safety of children while maintaining commitment to positive outcomes and stabilization of the biological family as a critical part of the work we do at the department. Our goal is, and will continue to be, keeping children at home with their families while supporting the family members in achieving their personal goals and those goals identified by the department and Family Court as essential to preservation of this family unit.
As Ms. Nye states, the Youth Advocate Program is one of the contracts in our services structure. There are many more.
YAP has done a fine job for the department and has worked with Oswego County families for many years successfully. But, they are not the only service we offer and they are not the only service of this kind.
We have at least four other contracts providing similar services with several contracts working at a greater level of intensity with families in crisis. We have multiple contracts due to the volume of families we serve and the diverse needs of those families.
It is important to note that contracted services in Oswego County work as a supplement to the work done by Oswego County caseworkers. It is our county caseworkers that lead the charge in helping keep children safe and families stable. There would be no services structure without them.
The Oswego County Legislature has been steadfast in its commitment to control the tax levy for county residents. That has been true since my arrival at the county and is represented in the work I have done with the legislature on the 2011, 2012, and 2013 budgets.
As a department head, I have been charged with holding the line on spending at the Department of Social Services in order to achieve the goals of the legislature, while maintaining services that are appropriate to the needs of the families we serve.
I assembled my management team this year to determine if and where cuts could be made to maintain the tax levy at 2012 rates. In our review of contracted services, it was apparent that some services were under-utilized with the department paying for empty slots.
Reducing those contracts was the easiest part of this assignment. The process also required management at DSS to re-visit the mission of the department, making sure our service structure matched the mission without expanding it beyond the needs of the community.
In some contracts, we were providing services not required by Child Welfare regulations (Social Services Law) at partial expense to the county tax payer. We carefully considered the need for those services and the consequences should the service be reduced or modified.
We have always considered the safety of children in this process as has the legislature. An important note is that the department did not “cut” programs as Ms. Nye suggests. We did reduce contracts and, in several cases, eliminated contracts, while bringing the services back into the department. What this means is our caseworkers will be doing the work that was contracted to community providers at a reduced cost to the taxpayer.
Those services funded through the department who are able to bill Medicaid were eliminated — although we will continue to refer individuals and families to them to ensure their financial viability.
Ms. Nye indicates in her letter that the cuts were immediate. In fact, they were not immediate. Contracts that were reduced or eliminated were continued at their current funding levels through the end of 2012. We needed this time for the transitioning of staff in that program, but more importantly to assist families in completing service or being transitioned to another provider.
Those programs needing to lay off staff are being offered employment related services through the Department’s One Stop Center in Fulton.
Core services will continue to be provided to children and families in need in our county. Specialty services such as mental health and chemical dependency treatments will be referred to in county providers who have the ability to bill Medicaid, Medicare, or other commercial insurance providers.
Collaboration of effort will be the focus for future contracts with our area agencies, but duplication and layering of services is not a reasonable option moving forward.
State and federal dollars to the counties are dropping. The future of block grants that cover areas such as preventive and protective services, foster care, and child care are uncertain. A shifting of a larger part of the financial burden for services and assistance programming to the counties has been occurring over the last few years.
Unemployment in Oswego County increases the likelihood that more of our residents will qualify for cash assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid.
This creates a tremendous burden for county residents with the legislature maintaining a commitment to not shift this burden to the taxpayers. The county’s primary strategy for holding the tax levy is to hold and possibly reduce the county’s overall operating budget.
The Department of Social Services is just one of the county’s departments that made cuts for 2013. Other Departments shared in that burden.
The landscape for social services is changing, politically and financially. Services will continue to be restructured at DSS with a focus on engagement, efficiencies in operation, productivity, and a clear commitment to outcomes.
Agencies in our community will need to bring their “A” game to the table to ensure that families will partner, participate, and benefit from the services provided. They will need to be creative and flexible in their implementation of services to ensure that families will get a return on their investment as well as Oswego County.
These are indeed difficult times. But, there can be a productive marriage between best practice and cost effectiveness, while providing significant benefits to families. I will continue to be committed to this strategy.