It was billed as a town hall meeting presenting information on the county's Department of Social Services in Dunkirk, and that was what it was. And then some.
County Executive Greg Edwards along with Commissioner of Social Services Steven Wickmark and two department administrators were present to provide information along with addressing questions and concerns from the large crowd in City Court.
Dunkirk Mayor Richard Frey introduced Edwards.
"I'm glad he stepped forward in coming here to speak to you people with your concerns about DSS in the city of Dunkirk" Frey said.
"We are here to talk about the delivery of Social Services through the Department of Social Services, the county operations in and around the Dunkirk area," Edwards said.
After reading his Monday Morning Memo from Oct. 11 that spoke of the meeting and provided some information on the last four months of DSS operations, Edwards spoke of future plans.
OBSERVER Photos by Gib Snyder
From left: Pictured among the crowd in City Hall for a forum on the delivery of Department of Social Services in Dunkirk were: Penny Gummo questioning the efficiency of DSS satellite offices she works at; Rose Conti and Third Ward Councilwoman Rose Floramo listening to speakers. P & G owner Gary Damico talks about the effects of the fire on his and other downtown businesses.
Below: Dunkirk Mayor Richard Frey welcomes County Executive Greg Edwards to City Hall.
"We're also working on expanding the number of these local sites that are available to people in and around the northern part of the county, with the goal of by the end of this year or the middle part of next year, to have 14 sites up and running so people all across the north county have access to the services that are available right in the areas where we live," he stated before addressing the status of the Graf Building.
"We're currently working with the owners of the Graf Building, we've talked to them about the long-term use of that facility, whether it's going to be county offices in its current form; a new design of a building for county offices or whether or not it is not going to work long-term as a county office," he said.
"In the current design of that building, and our current plan, there's a strong likelihood that we're going to re-populate that building with Department of Social Services workers on the first floor ... second floor was the Mental Hygiene Office ... and the third floor back into the Department of Health clinic as it was before; with the idea of having those services in the city center," he added.
Edwards detailed the current locations of some of the offices, including locations at the Connections Office on Route 60, Courtney Street and Central Avenue across from the fairgrounds. Edwards said a determination on why people travel to Jamestown for some services when it is not necessary has yet to be made.
Edwards said he would do his best to answer questions from the audience.
And he got them, from incorrect numbers in his Monday Morning Memo (a typo); to why the switch to satellite offices (a planned move to serve people in those immediate areas); to what are the plans to relocate to a site in downtown Dunkirk.
Several DSS workers reported information that was at odds with DSS administration information. Another concern for workers was unsafe conditions at the Jamestown site due to overcrowding and inefficiencies with the satellite sites. The extra driving involved to work, and the county paying extra mileage for work-related travel were other problems for some of the workers displaced by the fire.
One of those was Penny Gummo, a DSS case manager who told of a day at a satellite office.
"I went to Westfield on the 20th of September. There were four workers there to see four people," she stated. "I carried in a laptop, a suitcase and a printer, so that we could all see four people. In that same week we went to Sheridan and we saw five people, only scheduled people. People that were asked to come there. One was from Dunkirk, one was from Silver Creek and three were from Forestville."
Gummo said the amount of changes in the last eight months has been detrimental.
"We're not doing our jobs efficiently anymore. I get a notice on Friday that the next Thursday I'm going to be in Pine Valley," she said. "Well, guess how many people were in Pine Valley? None. The four of us sat there. Yes, we had computer access so we could get some work done, but nobody showed up.
"You can schedule people if you want to, but we have a 50 percent no-show rate."
Gummo said if Edwards came and talked to the workers it would help.
"Your whole administration is a dictatorship. You tell us we will do this and you don't want to hear anything," she said. "I'm used to being efficient, I'm used to working hard, I don't mind it but what I'm doing is ridiculous."
Clients told of phone calls unanswered, hangups, and getting somewhat of a runaround when trying to get information. Another problem for workers and clients is a change from a personal interaction between both to a more impersonal situation. Wickmark said that would not likely change given the increase in the number of recipients and some changes the state has made.
Several speakers addressed the effect the loss of the daily presence of some 70-plus DSS workers has had on downtown city businesses. Some called for a change come the next election.
County Legislator Robert Duff asked if Edwards would commit to returning DSS to the Graf Building. Edwards described the current condition of the Graf building as being mostly cleared out down to the steel studs.
"Right now I'm working with the owners to determine if it's in their best interest long-term to have that rebuilt specifically for county offices and whether it's in the best interests of the taxpayers of Chautauqua County to have that rebuilt specifically for a county office building, which most certainly would require a long-term lease for them to do that," Edwards replied. " ... My job, as I just described, was to make sure that the taxpayers of Chautauqua County are represented so that decisions are made that are most cost effective, currently and long-term, as regards to cost."
He added that the county must also live up to its legal obligations to provide services as required by the state and federal governments.
Through it all, Edwards kept things moving during the 90-minute session while trying to give all with questions an opportunity to pose them.
After the meeting Edwards was asked what he had learned.
"The public meeting did exactly what I was hoping it would; it gave people an opportunity to come and express very directly their concerns, their issues, and also offer solutions. For me, the night was a resounding success for those reasons," he replied. "We didn't solve those problems tonight but I believe they were clearly articulated and it was an opportunity to communicate to people our commitment to address them.
"It wasn't my intention to give just my opinion, I wanted to hear the opinions of others. I was encouraged by the breadth of the participation, it wasn't just one focus or issue."
Edwards noted that participants included his county co-workers, community activists, business people, clients and those interested in economic development.
"I couldn't have asked for a better group of people or meeting by the way it played out," he stated. "I look forward to putting to work some of the suggestions and opportunities we talked about tonight."
Edwards was asked what the next step was. He said the next step began after the meeting with a meeting with Wickmark to identify immediate steps to work on the concerns expressed.
"If we are sending a letter to someone telling them they need to go to Jamestown, that will stop. If there are any of my co-workers telling people they need to go to Jamestown, that will stop," Edwards said. "In addition, if there are telephone issues or problems within our physical plants those will immediately be addressed."
As for the long-term, Edwards said that is being worked on as well.
"We're looking to do what's best for the county in terms of physical plants; where they are located, how they will be used and who will be in them, all will be analyzed," he said. "It's most definitely a work in progress and we'll continue to work for solutions.
"We're constantly looking for ways to implement development and cut costs. We'll keep doing that. The Department of Social Services will keep doing that. I was clearly looking for solutions and looking to address the core issues of the people we serve and also my co-workers. I hope people don't doubt my commitment to that."
Edwards added he hopes both workers and citizens feel free to "tell me when they have a problem."
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