Cortland County Legislature approves additional caseworker positions

The Cortland County Legislature (Cortland Voice file photo)

Thursday evening’s meeting of the Cortland County Legislature proved to be a contentious one. Legislators were divided on several agenda items concerning various budget requests: capital improvement of the county courthouse; creating three caseworker positions for the Department of Social Services; and creating a paralegal position in the office of the Clerk of the Legislature, among others.

Legislators approved the authorization of professional services and contract with Bell and Spina Architects of Syracuse, for structural improvements to the Cortland County Courthouse. Bell and Spina proposed a scope of work that includes a multi-year capital plan for the courthouse as well as assisting the county with developing grant applications to solicit funding to support the anticipated improvements.

Legislator Beau Harbin (LD-2) said the county can’t allow the courthouse to continue to deteriorate like the Cortland County Jail. The money for the project will be taken from the county’s general fund and will be put toward renovating the exterior stairs, roof, heating system, and elevator. Legislator Kelly Fairchild-Preston (LD-10) did not support the motion, citing her opposition to taking money from the general fund to move forward with the project. Legislator George Wagner (LD-15) reminded the committee the work has to be done, but the money needs to be “put back” into the general fund “some way or another.” Wagner said the county is looking at a budget deficit of $1.6 million this year, and a projected deficit of $3 million for the following year.

“We’ve got to be more careful,” Wagner said.

Kristen Monroe, Cortland County Commissioner of Social Services, addressed the legislature concerning an urgent request for the approval of the creation of three caseworker positions for the county.

“We just can’t manage the work effectively with the staff we have,” Monroe said. “We’re at great risk of the system completely failing.”

Monroe cites chronic turnover for decades as a major source of strain on the entire system.

“These jobs are tough,” Monroe said. “Our only fighting chance to repair this situation is to put more people into the system and see if the job is for them,” she said.

Monroe insisted the creation of the positions was necessary to save the county a possible tragedy.

Discussions among legislators in support of and opposition to the proposed Caseworker positions were both emotional and fiscally pragmatic. Kelly Fairchild-Preston (LD-10) recommended the resolution be referred to the Personnel Committee to get appropriate direction to help the county’s Department of Social Services (DSS), instead of “just throwing more employees there.” Fairchild-Preston wants accurate information to make an informed decision.

Monroe says the system “is truly crashing,” and Legislator Sandra Price (LD-14) worried the county may “lose a child” due to chronic staff turnover; Monroe replied that’s what she meant by her statement of the system crashing. Legislator Ann Homer (LD-7) gave an impassioned speech pleading with fellow legislators to approve the addition of caseworker positions, citing her past experience working for the county’s DSS.

“We’ve had a child die because we don’t have enough staffing, I don’t want to go through that again, and I don’t want that on my head or Kristen’s,” Homer said.

Ronald Van Dee (LD-4) said lawmakers needed to approve the positions Thursday for the “safety of our children.”

Majority Leader Kevin Whitney (LD-13) reminded the committee that in order for these positions to be approved and created, the county would have to add $189,000 (the annual sum of the three positions) to the county’s annual budget, which would be reflected in constituents’ taxes, regardless of whether or not the positions can even be filled. Legislator Paul Heider (LD-16) said he couldn’t support the creation of three additional Caseworker positions considering the department’s current vacancies. Heider supports Fairchild-Preston’s recommendation of researching why the county continues to have chronic staff turnover. “I don’t see today where this will help us keep our staff where it needs to be, so I cannot support this tonight,” Heider said. “And I support every one of our children in the county, and I don’t want to use this as a venue to say ‘I don’t support that,’” Heider said.

In the end, the creation of three caseworker positions was approved, but the legislators remained divided. Legislators Chad Poli (LD-5), Linda Jones (LD-9), Fairchild-Preston, Whitney, Wagner, Heider and Joan Coombs (LD-17) voted against the measure.

JM Murray CEO Speaks Out

Ernest Dodge, President/CEO of Cortland County’s JM Murray Center, spoke out during public comment to voice his opposition to the Raise the Wage Act (H.R. 582) and the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act (H.R. 873). Dodge specifically challenged the elimination of provision 14(c)—a provision of the Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938—which allows employers to pay people with disabilities a wage below the federal minimum wage. The Raise the Wage act includes a provision to phase out the 14(c) program.

The JM Murray Center was founded on the premise of “being able to offer people with disabilities the opportunity to obtain legitimate employment in a real world work environment while also teaching them valuable skills, improving their self-esteem, and enriching their lives,” according to their website.

The center currently has about 225 employees and an annual payroll of $7 million. Dodge says 110 people with disabilities “voluntarily” choose to work at JM Murray under the payment adaptations of the FLSA’s 14(c) provision. Dodge asserted that the provision allows for wages to be based on “efficiencies.”

“Life isn’t fair. And some people, no matter how hard they work, and no matter how you tailor the job, a 25-30% efficiency is a great day for them,” Dodge said.

However, a 25-30% efficiency isn’t great for JM Murray. Dodge said approximately 95 of the 110 employees with disabilities would be “forced” back into the community because JM Murray can’t afford to pay “full wages for 25-30% productivity. The work that we derive on the private market is competitive. We are a competitive, community-based employer.”

Michael Barylski (LD-12) asked the committee to rethink the motion to oppose the Raise the Wage Act (H.R. 582) and the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act (H.R. 873) in their entirety, and instead, only oppose the single “offending” provision, i.e., 14(c).

Legislator Beau Harbin (LD-2) was the only legislator to vote against the motion.

“I fully support the need for a living wage for all workers, which is the goal of these congressional acts. A living wage for everyone is critical. I’m torn over this resolution. I appreciate the work Mr. Dodge and the JM Murray Center does and the services they provide to our community and the employment they provide,” Harbin said. “They and all workers should be earning a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.”