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Collins plans to make changes at three nutrition program sites

Over the Legislature's objections, Erie County Executive Chris Collins will change three outreach sites used by about 3,000 participants in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

On Dec. 19, Collins, who has been searching for free or low-cost space, will close an office in Depew Village Hall that costs $45,000 a year.

Next month, he will close a site at 17 Long Ave. in Hamburg and open a replacement six miles away in Blasdell Village Hall.

In December, he will close the site at 609 Ridge Road in Lackawanna and merge its operations with a site at 200 Cazenovia St. in South Buffalo, less than three miles away.

On paper, the moves are expected to save county taxpayers about $120,000 a year. But legislators see Collins as focused on the bottom line and forgetting about the people served by the program.

Even a change of just a few miles can inconvenience a needy mother with children by forcing her to board a second bus, said Legislator Thomas J. Mazur, D-Cheektowaga.

"It's just not thought out," said Mazur, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee. "There's blood at the end of the pencil. It's not just the bottom line -- there is a life impacted by the bottom line."

Collins' team had privately discussed taking the county out of the WIC program altogether by enlisting quasi-public organizations to assume the county's role. But Bryan Fiume, Collins' liaison with the Legislature, said no such change will be made next year.

"As of right now, there is no plan for the county to get out of the WIC business," Fiume told Mazur's committee this week.

The program provides pregnant women and children with nutritious food. The federal government pays the program's $3.2 million cost in the county, including the salaries of about 50 county employees who oversee about 16,000 cases each month.

But the federal government does not pay for the free health care those workers will receive in retirement, a county-provided benefit. And other organizations, such as Kaleida Health, also provide WIC services.

"The option of the WIC program not being available to the citizens of Erie County is not on the table," said Dr. Anthony Billittier IV, county health commissioner. "That is not going to happen."

Collins is determined to present a budget with no tax increase for next year, and his aides wanted to see if they could wring savings out of the WIC program, or the host of other services the county provides.

When Fiume and Billittier represented Collins before Mazur's Health and Human Services Committee, the two ran into a wall of Democrats arguing Collins should be making it easier for people to sign up for the nutrition program.

"We have got to put the human face on this program," said Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, who mentioned that years ago she signed up for WIC. "We are providers of human services. We are not a business."

Collins is trying to consolidate the government's far-flung workers by transferring them from rented space to county-owned quarters whenever possible.

The state-appointed control board supports him in the efficiency effort by paying the salary of Michelle Mazzone, his space-utilization director.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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