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Chautauqua County has seen its long-term welfare rolls decline by nearly 500 people over the past two years as it implemented strategies to help people move into the work force.

Deputy Social Services Commissioner Kirk Maurer late this week told the Legislature's Human Services Committee that the 3-year-old Transitional Assistance Division has reduced the length of family stays on public assistance.

Maurer said the division was redesigned as part of an initiative started in 1998 with the adoption of a new county charter and the start of performance-based management within county government.

"Since the passage of federal welfare reform in late 1996, which established a five-year lifetime limit on federal financial support of poor families, we have concentrated on reducing the length of stay for all families on public assistance," he noted.

With the new federal standards, Maurer said the Transitional Assistance Division was chosen, along with two divisions in the Department of Public Facilities, to take part in the county's first pilot project for the performance-based management initiative.

Human Services Committee Chairwoman Sallie Pullano, D-Fredonia, said that for the second year in a row the department had demonstrated both performance and results.

"People are staying on welfare shorter periods of time, and people who have been in the Transitional Assistance system are getting off public assistance. They're going into the work force."

Maurer pointed out that from January 1999 to December 2000, the department had seen an overall savings of $3.2 million -- $800,000 of which was in direct savings to local property taxpayers.

In addition, Maurer said the department is exceeding its longer-term goal of reducing the average length of a family's stay on public assistance by 11 percent. He said officials had set a goal of reducing the average by 5 percent during the past year.

Maurer told the committee because of this, the department has been able to shift more of its emphasis on assisting families in transition.

Pullano pointed out this has put greater importance on work-force training, and child-care assistance for parents now working has jumped by 20 percent in the past year alone.

"That is a good thing, because we need the children of the (people) in the work force to be healthy and well-cared for, which leads us into healthier teenagers and healthier adults," she noted.

County Executive Mark Thomas said the department also has taken steps to cut and redeploy its staff. He said that three manager positions were eliminated, and six front-line staff members were reassigned to medical assistance and work-force development.

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