MAYVILLE - The number of welfare fraud arrests in Chautauqua County last year was significantly down compared to 2011. But the numbers are misleading, Sheriff Joe Gerace said.
The number of undeserving residents denied access to public assistance in the first place, is soaring, county officials say.
There were 35 welfare fraud arrests in 2012, which resulted in 76 charges. Gerace said most arrests lead to multiple charges. In 2011, the Sheriff's Office arrested 92 individuals defrauding the county's welfare system.
The sheriff, however, said the drop in arrests do not accurately reflect the number of welfare fraud cases currently being investigated. In fact, the number of arrests are nowhere near where they should be.
"We only have one investigator assigned to a backlog of cases," Gerace said, noting that a second investigator was slashed from his budget in 2011. "If we had another one helping out, the number of arrests would double or triple."
The county's lone investigator last year was assigned 207 potential welfare fraud cases, many of which date from 2011. Of those arrests, the county was defrauded $149,000.
"It's very frustrating because I was opposed to going to just one investigator," Gerace said.
In October, the sheriff unsuccessfully pitched the County Legislature to restore nine part-time and full-time deputies, including an additional welfare fraud investigator.
"I think the public is very supportive of holding people accountable," Gerace said. "They want to see those people brought to justice."
Christine Schuyler, Chautauqua County social services commissioner, said front-end fraud protection has surged in the last two years, saving the county millions of dollars in the process. In 2012 alone, she said, the county prevented $6.4 million in benefits from reaching the hands of those unqualified.
"We have been doing a better job of screening the applicants as they come in and finding those red flags in the process," Schuyler said. "We're then making the necessary referrals to our fraud investigators."
Proof of success on front-end detection is in the numbers. Last year the county made 3,300 referrals to its fraud investigation team; only 700 referrals were made in 2011.
Schuyler attributes the success to internal changes within the social services department.
"These changes are a way to stop fraud before it happens," she said. "We have a responsibility to the taxpayers to ensure only those who deserve the help are getting it."
Meanwhile, Andy Goodell, R-Chautauqua County, is one of many state lawmakers to target welfare fraud. "I think it's a serious issue, and it takes a number of different forms," he said.
Goodell has introduced numerous pieces of legislation aimed at curbing the number of welfare fraud cases in the state. Goodell currently is co-sponsoring the Public Assistance Integrity Act, which would bar cash benefit recipients from purchasing cigarettes, alcohol and lottery tickets. A matching bill in the state Senate passed in June.
In order to prevent welfare fraud, Goodell said vigilance is key. "We need help from the residents of the county," he said.
For example, Goodell said, if a benefits recipient turns down a job offer in order to remain on welfare, the recipient "could and should be kicked off."
"These people are stealing money from you and I," Goodell said. "Obviously all of us are concerned. The only way to get out of poverty is to get a job and get decent money and work your way up."
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