Between 13,000 and 15,000 Erie County residents walk through the first floor of the county's Rath Building each month in need of Social Services assistance. More than a year ago, that "customer service" space featured vandalized restrooms, litter-laden floors and counters, old institutional partitions, and a cattle-call system of service that administrators said made both clients and staff cranky.
On Monday, the county unveiled the result of a $1.4 million renovation project. Changes to the 11,500 square-foot space include handicapped-accessible, graffiti-free restrooms, child's play area, private diaper changing area and a bank of counter-height electrical outlets and USB ports for those who need to charge their phones.
"This is a project that started over 10 years ago," said Mary Ellen Brockmyre, a deputy commissioner for Social Services. "We've been able to improve the face of social services and welcome the community."
The institutional gray and black color scheme and blemished floors have been redone in a calming, green-textured colors. The customer service windows have been updated, and the chairs have a more modern, stylish look.
Instead of one, giant waiting area that throws most Social Services clients together, regardless of what services they need, the new queuing system directs people to one of three different waiting areas, each with an automated, numbered call system similar to what customers see at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
New applicants for Social Services benefits are now separated from those who are homeless and seeking shelter or assistance. And those who simply need new benefits cards are now directed to a separate first-floor area where they can expect more in-and-out help. Metal detectors and X-ray machines at the entrance improve security.
Monday was a particularly busy day for the newly opened first-floor service area, with more than 1,600 residents filing through for assistance.
Several residents called the renovations a clear improvement over what used to be there, but they complained it still takes too long to get help.
"It's still too slow," said Gloria Rivera, who walked out of Social Services after 4 p.m. "I've been here since 12 o'clock."
Anthony Dobbs, another resident who waited for two hours to get help, said, "Even though it's renovated, we're still here for hours."
Myra N. Harris, who was getting recertified to receive food stamps, said the county needs to be more mindful of the fact that many residents who receive Social Services work and can't miss an entire day of work to deal with the red tape and bureaucracy.
Renee Biniecki, the logistics coordinator who directly supervised the renovation, said the automated call-number system had some glitches on Monday that administrators hope to work out soon.
Some new features were clearly appreciated. About half a dozen children were happily playing with toys donated by Fisher-Price in a small child's area. In the past, children sat bored, either squirming in their parents' laps or getting rebuked by their parents as they wandered through the area.
A few of the toys, however, had already disappeared, and most of the children's books – which were free to take – were already gone. Biniecki said the county would love more substantial toys (no small, removable pieces) and children's book donations from the public to keep this area kid friendly. Anyone wishing to donate may call the commissioner's office at 858-7511.
Security personnel said that since the second-floor waiting area space was renovated a few years ago, graffiti and vandalism to county property fell by 90 percent. Marie Cannon, first deputy commissioner of Social Services, said she is equally optimistic that with renovation to the new Social Services area on the first floor, the restrooms, furniture and fixtures will also be treated with more respect.
"When you provide a respectful, professional environment, people respond," she said.