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Social Services Department continues to trim employees

The largest department in Niagara County government is gradually getting smaller, the County Legislature learned Monday during its first work session on the 2008 county budget.

Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino said his department will have 424 employees next year, which is five fewer than this year, 14 fewer than in 2005 and more than 60 fewer jobs than it had in 2000.
The department's $97.4 million budget for 2008 is nearly $5 million lower than this year's version, a big chunk of the overall $9 million spending decrease in the spending plan put forward by County Manager Gregory D. Lewis.

Restaino said the biggest factor is a $6.8 million reduction in spending on the Home Energy Assistance Program that helps low-income residents pay their heating bills. The reduction in county expense came because the state is taking over all the direct payments to utility companies, leaving the county with only $150,000 in HEAP expenses for direct payments to applicants.
Medicaid, at $41 million the largest single item in the budget, is showing an increase of $1.1 million under terms of the "soft cap" the state placed on the growth of the health insurance program for the poor. Restaino said the county also will do without a $300,000 one-time state reimbursement it received last year after suing the state over old claims.
However, administration costs are up $900,000, with the largest reason being the new contract the county signed with the Civil Service Employees Association, which produced raises pegged to retroactive hikes the union members received earlier this year.
Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein offered similar reasons for an increase in personnel costs in his department. The Enhanced 911 budget, which pays for the dispatchers, showed a 12 percent increase in personnel costs, or more than $94,000.
Besides contracted raises for the Deputy Sheriffs Association, which includes the dispatchers and jail guards, Lewis' budget adds one new dispatcher, bringing the total in that segment to 22 jobs.
The budget adds three new correction officers to the jail payroll, bringing the total to 194 jobs, and the personnel costs there show an increase of $596,886, or 8 percent. Beilein said the state Department of Correctional Services concluded the jail was understaffed and recommended six new guards be hired. However, for budgetary reasons, Lewis decided to hire only three next year and save the other new jobs for 2009.
The patrol side of Beilein's budget shows a personnel increase of less than 1 percent, because the patrol deputies' union has yet to agree to a new contract.
The budget includes six months' worth of funding for Mount View Health Facility, although the nursing home is targeted for closure Dec. 28, and almost all of the 150 remaining employees received layoff notices last week, effective on that date.
Administrator Robert E. Sobon said, "There are a very small number of individuals who have been identified with post-closure tasks." They include handling medical and Social Services records for former patients and sending them to their new facilities.
Lewis said little of the $5.3 million in the budget for Mount View will be spent on positions and services. Instead, he said the money will be transferred to be spent on closure costs, along with an $8.8 million state Health Department grant.
"Without revenues coming in, there will be costs for unemployment, the closure itself, and the workers' compensation claims continue," he said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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