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More security sought at Falls welfare office

LOCKPORT – With clients at the welfare office in Niagara Falls becoming rowdier, two Niagara County Legislature committees approved a request this week to hire a second full-time deputy sheriff to work on a security detail there.

Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino made the request because the crowding and the layout of the office in the Human Resources Building on 10th Street make it impossible for one officer to handle everything that might happen.

Restaino said it’s not unusual for the deputy working there to confiscate knives or take part in the execution of arrest warrants on clients. Monday, there was an arrest during a hearing to which welfare applicants are entitled if they are rejected for benefits. The applicant became unruly, Restaino said.

The commissioner said it’s not unusual for caseworkers to be accosted by clients in the parking lot. “There’s been an increase in the number of workplace violence complaints,” Restaino said.

Undersheriff Michael Filicetti said there is also a deputy assigned to the Lockport Social Services office, but conditions there aren’t as intense as in the Falls. “Compared to the Lockport site, it’s about double the number of clients,” Filicetti said.

In 2014, Restaino said, there were 89,000 “client contacts” in the Falls office, as compared to less than 35,000 in Lockport.

The Falls office features a long hallway, often crowded with 40 to 60 people, and on the other side of a wall is an interview area, which is where the new deputy would be assigned full-time. Besides the “fair hearings” on rejection of benefits, the area also is used for new applications, recertifications and supervised child visitations under the auspices of Child Protective Services. There are 12 to 14 such visitations in Niagara Falls each week, as opposed to two per week in Lockport, Restaino said.

Restaino said, “I’m the one who took the deputies out there eight or 10 years ago.” But conditions have changed and full-time security was restored last year and now is being increased. If the full Legislature agrees next Tuesday, the Social Services Department will reimburse the Sheriff’s Office for the cost of the new $25.36-per-hour deputy, who would start work Aug. 16.

Another county department under stress is the pistol permit office in Lockport, which already is closed to the public on Wednesdays as workers attempt to wade through a backlog of new or amended permit requests, as well as opt-outs from the Freedom of Information Law, since the state’s SAFE Act allowed gun owners to exempt their permits from public disclosure.

At present, the office has only two clerical workers, but Deputy County Clerk Wendy J. Roberson persuaded the committees to allow the creation of two more such jobs.

The full-time workers would be paid $15.77 per hour and would start Aug. 5, the day after the scheduled vote of the full Legislature. The jobs of two recent retirees in that office, a pistol permit examiner/court liaison and a document clerk-cashier, are being abolished, so there is a net savings of $14,386.

But the real point, Roberson said, is to give the staff a chance to properly serve the nearly 30,000 pistol permit holders in the county. In 2017, according to the SAFE Act, all permit holders must be recertified or their permits will be canceled.

“We know it’s going to impact us,” Roberson said. Expanding the clerical staff “will give us greater flexibility in that office because we know that’s coming down the pike.”

District Attorney Michael J. Violante supported the move, saying that the backlog has caused operational problems for him and Sheriff James R. Voutour. “Certainly by the time recertification comes up, we will be overwhelmed,” Violante said.