The Niagara County Legislature last week narrowly defeated a request to hire nine more employees to cope with increasing reports of child abuse, even though the state was offering temporary funding to begin to pay for the hires.
The 10-8 vote against the proposal came after a protracted debate in an Administration Committee meeting, where Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino appealed for more staff because of child abuse reports increasing at a record rate.
He said the state Office of Children and Family Services is recommending that the average caseload for a Child Protective Services caseworker be 12 active investigations per month. However, Niagara County's monthly average is 17 per caseworker.
Last year, there were 2,800 child abuse reports; this year's figure is projected to reach 3,000.
The state was offering $106,858 in aid to pay for seven caseworkers and a supervisor, but only for six months. The caseworkers would have been paid $18.88 per hour, according to the contract of the county's unit of the Civil Service Employees Association. The supervisor would have been paid $23.99 per hour.
Restaino said that another clerical worker, to be paid $13.95 per hour, also would have been necessary.
However, several legislators questioned the 12-case target. "The state is coming up with arbitrary numbers," said Legislator Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls. "This is just bogus."
Legislator Danny W. Sklarski, D-Town of Niagara, strongly backed the hiring. He said communities hire more police officers and firefighters when they have emergencies. "This is an emergency, only with children," Sklarski said.
"How much can we take? How much can the state dump on the counties? It is wrong," Kimble said.
Restaino said, "Your frustration with the state is mine on a everyday basis. . . . We will do what we have to do to get the cases investigated."
County Manager Gregory D. Lewis told the committee that if it created nine jobs, he might find it necessary to cut nine positions elsewhere in the 2009 county budget.
A compromise, to hire only five workers instead of nine, was defeated in committee in a 5-4 vote. But Legislator W. Keith McNall, R-Lockport, changed his vote to pass the nine-person hiring plan onto the full Legislature, where it failed, 10-8.
Restaino said, "Six months from now, we might be having this discussion again."