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DSS nominee faces questions about time at Gateway-Longview

The man nominated to head Erie County’s troubled Department of Social Services laid out his credentials Thursday during a meeting with a County Legislature committee.

But despite hearing him outline plans to improve the department and make it more transparent, two Buffalo Democratic legislators expressed concerns about Al Dirschberger’s management style. The concerns stem from complaints the lawmakers received from members of an advisory board that was connected to Gateway-Longview’s Family Resource Center that was run out of the former Humboldt YMCA, 347 E. Ferry St. The center, which provided youth programs, closed in January.

Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant and Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams said they received calls and emails urging them to vote against Dirschberger’s nomination because of concerns about the facility’s closing and allegations of racial bias directed toward some of Gateway-Longview’s African-American staff.

“We do have some concerns and it puts myself and, perhaps, Legislator Grant in a very difficult position,” Miller-Williams said.

“These are members of the community that don’t have the benefit of your extensive résumé ... All they know is that there is a perceived injustice that occurred at the East Ferry site, and for your name to be advanced at this time, it’s causing us a major problem,” she added.

Dirschberger, the former vice president at Gateway-Longview, said the complaints stem from “a lot of misinformation” about the East Ferry Street facility, which Gateway-Longview purchased for $1 in 2007. He said he had no direct oversight of the facility beyond the first six months it was opened.

However, he explained, funding cuts meant the agency was no longer able to provide quality youth services at the Family Resource Center. As a result, he said, Gateway-Longview entered into a partnership with Saving Grace Ministries and True Bethel Baptist Church – backed by the Buffalo Sabres Foundation – to change the center’s focus. The facility will reopen sometime in the spring, he added, newly remodeled to include housing for veterans on the upper floors.

As for the allegations of bias, he said some center workers were terminated because of child abuse complaints that outside agencies upheld, and only after Gateway-Longview also conducted its own investigations. He said the agency could not have such people working with children.

“I created a position outside the management team to do investigations so it wouldn’t be personal,” he said.

In the meantime, Dirschberger told the Health and Human Services Committee that he was confident he has the requisite skills and background to take over the county’s largest department, with upward of a $400 million annual budget and roughly 1,600 employees.

“I believe my experience, in particular, as Gateway’s vice president will be directly relevant and useful as I take up the task of administering and improving the Department of Social Services,” Dirschberger said.

“I have managerial experience with a large staff. Admittedly, not as large as the 1,600 employees in Social Services,” he added.

Dirschberger also addressed his decision to leave his position as executive director of Journey’s End Refugee Services after only two months on the job. He said the agency’s board fully supported him in his endeavor to pursue the challenge of running the county’s Department of Social Services.

“There are three to four directors that could easily step in (at Journey’s End),” he said. “That’s why I didn’t feel like I was leaving the organization high and dry.”

Dirschberger has been a supervisor and administrator in child care services for nearly 30 years, nearly all of it at Gateway-Longview where, in 2002, he became vice president of the agency, managing a $10 million annual budget.

He was nominated last week by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz to head Social Services, which has come under severe criticism in recent years for the deaths of children whose families had contact with the department’s Child Protective Services division. If confirmed by the Legislature, he would replace Carol Dankert-Mauer, whose five-year term as commissioner expired in December.