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Niagara Legislature to pay off class-action welfare lawsuit

LOCKPORT – The Niagara County Legislature is expected to vote Tuesday to settle a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of welfare recipients, but the welfare clients won’t see a penny.

The entire payment of $108,827 will go to the lawyers that filed the suit against the county in U.S. District Court last year, said Thomas W. Scirto, attorney for the county Social Services Department.

The payment will go to the National Center for Law and Economic Justice in New York City, court papers said. It covers their legal fees and costs through Aug. 1.

The lawsuit charged that the county did not process applications for welfare benefits within the time limits required in federal and state law, and sought damages for all county residents who applied for welfare or food stamps since July 9, 2010. Darrell McCoy of Niagara Falls was the official plaintiff. He applied in March 2013 and by the time the lawsuit was filed July 9, 2013, he hadn’t received any benefits despite filing all the necessary documentation.

The law requires food stamps to be delivered to eligible applicants within 30 days of their application, and New York has an expedited food stamp program with a five-day time limit. The deadline for cash assistance is 30 days, except for Safety Net, which has a 45-day limit.

The lawsuit charged that the county was late in acting on an average of 229 food stamp applications a month and 180 cash applications a month between August 2012 and January 2013.

Because of the sharply increasing volume of applications in recent years, combined with several vacant jobs in Social Services’ intake unit, the accusations were largely true, Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino said.

“In order to mitigate what the financial penalties would be, we thought it was in our best interest to settle,” Restaino said last week, after the Legislature’s Community Services and Administration committees approved the payoff.

Scirto said, “The federal statute this (lawsuit) was based on is a strict action statute that supposes 100 percent compliance, which is impossible.”

As part of the settlement, the county pledged to implement procedures to ensure timely processing of applications. Restaino said he restructured the intake unit, moving people from job to job and converting clerical workers into intake caseworkers.

The county has more than 15,000 open food stamp cases, a figure that has doubled since 2008, Restaino said. There are nearly 3,100 open cash assistance cases, including the federally mandated Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and the state-mandated Safety Net.

The state created the latter after the federal welfare reform act signed by President Bill Clinton placed a five-year limit on the length of time a person can receive federally funded welfare. There is no time limit in New York’s Safety Net program.

Tuesday’s Legislature agenda also includes a resolution asking the State Senate and Assembly to pass a bill allowing counties to opt out of Safety Net.

The caseload for that program in Niagara County has risen 51 percent since 2006, and the cost has gone up 167 percent during that period, according to the resolution. The county has to bear 71 percent of the cost of Safety Net – the county’s bill was $7.8 million in 2013 – and it accounts for about 10 percent of the county’s property tax levy.

The state used to split Safety Net costs 50-50 with the counties, but changed that in 2011. The county has spent $26 million on Safety Net since then. Another resolution on Tuesday’s agenda asks the state to take over 100 percent of Safety Net costs.