By JOHN MACKOWIAK
OBSERVER Staff Writer
MAYVILLE - As firefighters battled the flames inside the Masonic Temple Building earlier this year, County Executive Greg Edwards and Steven Wickmark, commissioner of the county's Department of Social Services, were formulating a plan to get all of their employees back to work.
Pictured is the map regarding the mobile teams used by the Department of Social Services in Chautauqua County. The pink denotes anticipated future sites for the mobile teams.
The county maintained office space in the One Liberty Square and Graf Buildings, which stood next to the Masonic Temple Building and suffered severe damage during the Feb. 24 fire. One Liberty Square has since been demolished, and the Masonic Temple is soon-to-be demolished. At this point, it appears the Graf Building will remain standing.
All of the county employees in those buildings needed a new place to work. Given the critical nature of the services provided at the Liberty Square and Graf Buildings, it was imperative that county leaders move quickly to relocate workers.
"It created problems for all people," Edwards said, referring to the fire, "certainly the folks who work with us as clients of the Department of Social Services and the health department, probation, human services, mental health. It created great difficulties for everybody at those sites."
The morning after the fire, social services employees, who were displaced by the fire, gathered at the north campus of Jamestown Community College to learn what was next for them and for the county's ability to deliver services.
"That meeting started at 8 o'clock in the morning. By noon, everybody who had an office in Dunkirk, they had a place to work," Wickmark said. He added, "I'm very proud of our staff."
Much of the DSS staff that had been based in Dunkirk was moved to Jamestown - to work in the South County Office Building.
Moving a large number of workers from one office to another, it led to cramped working conditions. Employees were forced to share space.
"But to their credit, the staff really did a remarkable job," Wickmark said. "We didn't lose appointments. We didn't have people lose services as a result of the fire."
FIRE FORCES QUICK EVOLUTION
Over the course of about a month, services were transitioned from Dunkirk to Jamestown, Wickmark said. While the majority of services moved south, the department maintained an emergency services office in Dunkirk-for those with urgent needs.
"We established that on the very first day after the fire. We've had an emergency site open but for about a week ever since," Wickmark said. "And that site takes care of those people who reside in the Dunkirk area-or anywhere for that matter-and whose need is so desperate that they need to have services now, today. Those are homeless people. Those are people whose foodstamps have run out; people who have to have emergency placement for whatever reason. We're available to take care of that."
Dunkirk was without an emergency office for a bit longer than "about a week." The emergency office was slated to move from 318 Central Ave. to 314 Central in early May. However, after the building at 314 Central Ave. suffered severe damage over Mother's Day weekend, DSS was not able to move into that space and provide services there until June 9.
Nonetheless, in the time that the emergency office has been open, Wickmark has not heard that the department has been unable to meet its responsibility of responding to the emergent needs of clients. The conclusion to draw from that fact is clients' emergency needs are being met, Wickmark said.
The department quickly realized, after the fire, that the Jamestown office and emergency Dunkirk office was not sufficient for any of its clients. As a result, Wickmark and his staff instituted an idea that they've been developing for some time-a mobile services team that migrates from community to community.
The mobile team spends two days each week in Dunkirk, one day in Westfield and another day in Sheridan.
"Before the fire, we had started conversations about redesigning our workforce in such a way as to allow us to get out to where the clients live, where they work, rather than forcing clients scattered throughout the county to come to two centralized offices (in Dunkirk and Jamestown)," Wickmark said.
According to Wickmark, about 45 percent of the DSS client-base lives in and around Jamestown, and about 25 percent resides in the Dunkirk-Fredonia area. That leaves approximately 30 percent of all DSS clients spread out across the county.
"What we've done," Wickmark said, "is identify pockets, or population centers, where our data tell us we have sufficient numbers of clients to justify our actually having a staff team out there at least once a week."
Wickmark and his staff literally mapped out where the clients are located. Using a Chautauqua County map posted in his Wickmark's office, DSS plotted out points where relatively large proportions of services are needed.
They've found there are 14 communities with significant populations of DSS clients. It's logical, in Wickmark's mind, to then consider planting mobile services offices in each of those communities.
While the institution of a mobile services team was a data-driven decision, Wickmark insisted the decision is a reaction to requests from the community.
"I go out and speak to community groups on a fairly regular basis," the commissioner said, "and almost always, I am asked, 'Why is it we have to go to Dunkirk? Why is it we have to go to Jamestown? Why can't you come to us?' Well, it's actually a pretty good question."
Clearly, the mobile services team was an idea whose seed was planted long before the flames raged inside the Masonic Temple Building.
"The fire accelerated the speed at which we had to do something," Wickmark said. "We had to make a change."
RETHINKING WORKFORCE BEGAN WELL BEFORE FIRE
Wickmark explained there were additional factors that forced a rethinking of the way DSS does its work. One was the difference in culture that had developed between the two central offices-in Jamestown and Dunkirk.
"When you have two offices, you inevitably create two different cultures, two different ways of doing things, despite all attempts to have single management over the two," he said. "A group of people here think it's right to do the work this way, while the group in the other office has their own ideas about the best way to do the work. As a result, we had a significant difference in the way work was being done in Jamestown and Dunkirk."
Starting in November 2009, DSS began to merge the Dunkirk and Jamestown work teams, in an effort to strike a balance of perspective between the two offices, Wickmark said. They developed shared training and leadership agendas, according to the commissioner.
"To a large degree that was very successful," Wickmark said.
Performance measures in certain areas improved dramatically, Wickmark noted. He supported his claims of success with data.
"Case in point, we had a significant backlog in our Medicaid applications. We had over 900 applications that were overdue to a degree that it was impacting the speed at which clients were receiving the benefit," he said. "We implemented change, where we had staff that shifted locations. We now have that load to under 100."
Pointing out a set of line graphs that outline the department's Medicaid caseload and backlog, Edwards described an interesting development that has occurred in the months since the fire.
It wasn't until after Feb. 24, when the majority of the staff was moved to Jamestown, that the backlog of Medicaid applications plummeted. Working as one team in one location, Wickmark noted, DSS was able to catch up on its work.
"I think it's very telling," Edwards said, "that our caseload continues at the pace it was, but our delivery has improved dramatically. Because if we have a backlog of cases that are not being processed, then that's us not living up to our obligation to deliver to the best of our ability."
Narrowing the backlog is largely a result of the "complete review and retooling" of the way DSS works, Edwards added.
"Just a few months after an absolutely devastating fire, we've dramatically improved our services," Edwards said, adding, "There's no arguing the statistics."
According to Wickmark, the mobile services team is likely a factor in the reduction of the backlog.
"The mobile services team allows for us to get a core group out to do the essential work that has to happen," Wickmark said. "And while they're doing it, the rest of the division, the rest of the people, are back in Jamestown processing this paperwork."
The move to a mobile services team decreases "down time," the commissioner claimed. However, employees have raised concerns on multiple occasions that they see very few clients when they visit certain areas. They claim the opposite - that there is an abundance of "down time" when they're in a location such as Sheridan.
There is no question businesses in downtown Dunkirk have been severely affected by the Masonic Temple fire. A large volume of people who had worked on the 300-block of Central Avenue have been forced to move to locations throughout the area.
In the case of DSS employees - Wickmark said there had previously been about 90 in Dunkirk - a high percentage of them are still based in Jamestown.
Concerned about Dunkirk's downtown, Edwards had a message for business owners and city residents.
"There is no location in the Liberty Building, the Masonic Building or the Graf Building, where I could put county workers. That's just undeniable, inescapable fact," he said. "I couldn't put people in there, if I wanted to today. I couldn't set my own office up in any of those buildings today.
"My commitment continues to be, if the Graf Building is able to be refurbished, to put the significant majority to put those people that were in that very core, center of the city of Dunkirk back into that specific spot. We've already done our level best - I don't think anybody can deny that - to put as many services as we could as closely as we could to that location.
"I do know that having that hole in the city center does impact the businesses immediately surrounding it. And P&G Foods, I've been to their place, and I know that - or I hope that - they know I'm concerned about the impact.
"I just don't have any way of putting 90 people back into that city center until I've got a place to do it, and do it in such a way that there's only one more move because there is a significant cost in efficiency and in actual dollars and cents in moving people from spot to spot," the county executive concluded.
With the impending demolition of the Masonic Temple Building still to come, time will tell if the county will ever be able to move back into the Graf Building, Edwards added.
While the fire has caused downtown Dunkirk to lose some customers, other north county communities may gain some commercial traffic, as DSS employees and clients begin to frequent businesses located near mobile services offices, Edwards said.
As for the future of the mobile services team, Wickmark said the next community likely to see regular visits from the team is Cherry Creek. DSS is aiming to begin work in Cherry Creek in August, according to the commissioner.
Wickmark said he is open to suggestions, as the department works to perfect its service-delivery system.
Thus far, the mobile sites in Dunkirk and Westfield have worked out quite well for DSS, but Sheridan may not be the ideal location in northeastern Chautauqua County, Wickmark agreed. He said he's not done exploring opportunities in Silver Creek and Forestville.
"With every site we open, we learn a little bit more about how to do this," Wickmark said. "And that's what I communicated to my staff is that this isn't written in stone. We're going to learn how to do this together. And as we have our experiences, we're going to tweak the system and make it as positive as possible."