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Social services commissioner gets new five-year term

February 7, 2012
By CHRIS MORRIS - Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

ELIZABETHTOWN - The commissioner of the Essex County Department of Social Services has received a strong endorsement from the county's Board of Supervisors.

Lawmakers voted unanimously Monday morning to appoint John O'Neill to a new five-year term as social services commissioner.

O'Neill, who lives in Saranac Lake in the town of St. Armand, said he felt gratitude "for the unanimous vote of confidence" from the board and "humility for being lucky enough to have a job at all, let alone one that I enjoy."

In March, O'Neill will mark his 20th year as commissioner. He said in an email to the Enterprise his office has seen some big changes over the years, including a $6 million increase in its budget due to rising Medicaid costs.

O'Neill said the department's caseload has increased by some 1,000 cases while the staff itself has only grown by eight people.

"(There is a) changing demographic of people seeking services - (a) greater portion of caseload are people 'new' to the system, i.e. recently eligible due to unemployment, aging or illness ... (or) unfamiliar and surprised by bureaucratic hoops required to actually receive those services," he said.

O'Neill said he's also seen more calls to the Child Protective Services hotline, and there's a greater need for Adult Protective Services for the mentally ill.

The nation's recent economic woes have also resulted in an increased need for things like food stamps, O'Neill said.

But it hasn't been all about rising costs and need.

"(The) 1996 Welfare Reform, major change in (the) system, with more emphasis on work requirements and time limits, has resulted in drastically reduced welfare caseloads," O'Neill said.

Looking ahead, O'Neill said state mandates will continue to be a challenge for social services.

"(They are) constantly increasing, with very little or no funding to match," he said. "(There are) mandates designed for urban and populated regions which are highly inappropriate and counter-productive in far-flung Essex County."

He said those mandates are made even more difficult by "dwindling" state and federal funding.

The state's 2 percent tax cap, O'Neill added, will force the county to cut popular, non-mandated programs.

"Similar pressure forces layoffs, which compromises (the) ability to provide the increasing mandated programs within the mandated time frames," he said. "For example, forced layoffs in our department resulted in decreased CPS (Child Protective Services) staff, despite (an) increasing number of calls.

"In light of a diminishing middle class and widening gap between rich and poor, it's simply an unsustainable formula as is."

In a recent interview with the Enterprise, Supervisor David Blades, R-Lewis, said O'Neill has done a fine job leading one of the county's biggest departments. Blades chairs the county's Human Services Committee, which oversees Social Services.



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