SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY (February 9, 2015) – The Catskill Chronicle received this press release from Sullivan County Manager Josh Potosek.
“I would like to take a moment to address the residents of Sullivan County with regard to the service delays at Sullivan County Department of Family Services, and how we intend to move forward to provide a more efficient service delivery model.
“Our issues with the processing of HEAP applications are, sadly, not new. The number of applications processed in 2009-2010 HEAP season was 5,801 regular HEAP benefit and 1,157 Emergency benefits. To date in the 2014-2015 HEAP season DFS has processed 5,779 Regular benefits and 707 Emergency benefits so far. While pre-screening and qualifying begins in October and alleviates some of the bottleneck, the majority of eligible County residents cannot apply until November 17th. Compounding the bottleneck of having so many applicants apply at once, the incredibly cold winter we have had so far has led to more residents in need of HEAP assistance earlier in the winter season.
“This year, the DFS Commissioner implemented a new HEAP processing plan, which included:
- 3 full-time employees dedicated to HEAP (as submitted with the 2015 Budget Request)
- 5 seasonal employees who were hired for the HEAP season
- Several full-time employees who were part-time dedicated to HEAP
- Eliminating two HEAP positions in favor of a contract with the local 2-1-1 service provider to answer HEAP related questions, help callers determine their eligibility, etc.
“By early December, my office began to field an abnormally high volume of calls, specifically related to HEAP processing. When I discussed my concerns with the Commissioner, I was assured the situation was being handled, with some employees working a small amount of overtime a few nights a week and having employees from other DFS departments assist.
“I asked for, and received, periodic updates from the Commissioner over the next month, but the volume of calls to my office from residents whose HEAP applications where in limbo did not diminish. Each time I received an update, I was assured there was no problem and limited overtime was handling the workload. On January 23, I felt it necessary to step in and mandate the Commissioner seek volunteers for weekend overtime to address the backlog. If volunteers had not been forthcoming, I was prepared to mandate overtime in DFS and to deploy resources from other county departments to address the situation.
“Unfortunately, as the HEAP backlog has subsided, it has been brought to my attention that there are several other areas within DFS that are suffering from similar issues. For example, recent statistics from the NYS Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance show that over 50% of all applicants for the SNAP program are not being processed within the required 30-day timeframe.
“Additionally I have been informed that there is a potential problem with the processing of payments to childcare and foster care providers in a timely fashion, resulting in hardships on the vendors. This is something that we are currently looking into.
“I want to stress here the DFS staff have been working at a frantic pace to keep up with processing applications for HEAP, TANF, SNAP and other benefits, and they have volunteered to give up their nights, weekends and personal time to ensure that those who need the assistance receive it. They are the unsung heroes who truly deserve to be recognized for their efforts.
“With that being said it has become apparent that many DFS staff members are in need of more training and more supervision in order to do their job more effectively, and reduce the number of applications that are denied for technicalities rather than merit. I am fully committed to working with DFS supervisors and labor leaders to ensure a full training/refresher schedule is implemented in 2015 in order to give our staff the tools they need to most efficiently serve our residents.
“It is obvious that the volume of DFS applications is not going away, and we need to first understand the full extent of the problems, and then create serious and lasting reforms in how Sullivan County processes these applications and ensures services to our most vulnerable and at-risk residents. I am open to all ideas, and I will be meeting with employees from each of the DFS departments over the next two weeks to gather their concerns, opinions and suggestions on where our problem areas exist, and how we can address them moving forward. These men and women are experts in their field, and they have invaluable knowledge that I know they will share in order to better serve the residents of Sullivan County. I will also be reaching out to Assemblywoman Aileen M. Gunther and Senator John Bonacic for their insights and recommendations; especially since their offices have also fielded a significant number of DFS related calls recently.
“We are in the process of engaging an impartial, outside consultant to determine the extent of the applicant processing and vendor payment issues at DFS. I am grateful for the assistance of the County Treasurer, County Auditor and the Commissioner of Management in Budget with this selection process. I have requested the analysis commence immediately, and that their recommendations be submitted to me by May 31st, for full implementation no later than September 1, 2015.
“There are many options and suggestions on the table to adequately address the issues at DFS. The answer might lie in more training for the staff, or perhaps moving DFS staff to four, 10-hour work days to better accommodate residents’ schedules. To reduce the foot traffic in the DFS building we might consider having a mobile DFS service, similar to the mobile DMV, or HEAP processing days in our local town halls, to best serve our residents who are eligible and entitled to receive the services. We will work with the department heads, labor leaders, elected officials and of course, the County Legislature, to create the most efficient and sustainable model to deliver critical services to our most vulnerable residents in need.
“It is my honor and pleasure to serve my home, Sullivan County, and my door is always open to any resident who has an issue, suggestions or feedback. My office number is 845-807-0450 and my email is email@example.com.”
2014-2015 HEAP Timeline
- August 13, 2014: Commissioner requests 11 new DFS employees and 2 upgrades for 2015 Tentative Budget, requested positions include:
New: Staff Development Coordinator, Full Charge Bookkeeper, Social Services Data Control Coordinator, Assistant Employment and Training Director, Social Services Housing Director, Case Supervisor, Case Supervisor A, (2) Preventive Caseworkers, Account Clerk, Case Services Aide; Upgrades: Deputy Commissioner of Family Services to Division Deputy Commissioner, Head Social Welfare Examiner to Chief Social Welfare Examiner
- County Manager Recommends in 2015 Tentative County Budget 1 Staff Development Coordinator in the 2015 Tentative Budget
- The end of August, 2014 Early Outreach starts for HEAP
- October 17: Commissioner changes budget request to 9 new DFS employees and 3 upgrades. Is submitted too late for inclusion in the 2015 Tentative Budget, requested positions include:
New: Staff Development Coordinator, Full charge Bookkeeper, Social Services Data Control Coordinator, Social Services Housing Director, Assistant Director of Services, (2) Preventive Caseworkers, Account Clerk, Case Services Aide; Upgrades: Deputy Commissioner of Family Services to Division Deputy Commissioner, Sr. Social Welfare Examiner to Assistant Employment and Training Director, Head Social Welfare Examiner to Chief Social Welfare Examiner
- November 15: HEAP begins for regular applications
- December 1: Contract with 2-1-1 Service replaces 2 HEAP employees, as per Commissioner’s request
- December 4: Commissioner submits request for 7 DFS employees and 2 upgrades to the County Legislature at a Special Management and Budget Committee, requested positions include:
Full Charge Bookkeeper, Social Services Data Control Coordinator, Assistant Employment and Training Director, Social Services Housing Inspector, Assistant Director of Services, (2) Preventive Caseworker; Upgrades: Head Social Welfare Examiner to Chief Social Welfare Examiner, Sr. Caseworker to Case Supervisor
- In between the December 4 Special Management and Budget Committee meeting and the adoption of the budget: Commissioner verbally modifies his previous request to 3 new DFS employees to the Commissioner of Management and Budget.
- Those positions include: Division Deputy Commissioner, (2) Preventive Caseworkers
- HEAP backlog calls to County Manager’s Office begin: December 15, 2014
- January 23: County Manager directs Commissioner to solicit volunteers to work overtime during the week and weekends to eliminate backlog.
- Total HEAP applications processed Saturday, January 24 through Sunday, January 25 approximately 662:
- February 9: County Manager, Treasurer, Auditor and Commissioner for Management & Budget work to select outside consultant
- February 9-February 20: County Manager to meet with DFS Department staff
- May 31st: Outside consultant’s report and recommendations due
- September 1, 2015: Department Heads & Consultants’ recommendations implemented.