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Legislature Democrats Question Social Services Changes

By Eileen Buckley

Buffalo, NY – Some Erie County Democratic legislators say they have a lot of questions surrounding the County Executive's "Blueprint for Change" that calls for a consolidation of the Social Services Department. Majority Leader Lynn Marinelli says one big question is the legality of how a new social services commissioner was appointed and is being paid.

A couple of weeks ago, Joel Giambra unveiled an ambitious plan to combine social and human services by creating the Department of Family Services and Community Health. Giambra also named Kevin Helfer as the new social services commissioner, replacing long-time commissioner Deborah Merrifield. Right now she will remain as deputy commissioner. But Marinelli says Helfer's appointment has not yet been approved by the Legislature.

"The state apparently okayed this move," Marinelli said. "And I know the state has reorganized its social service structure. But we're operating under our own charter. I don't know legally what that (the change) means."

On Friday, Skip Ehrhart, CSEA Local 815 president, stated publicly that the county is paying for two social services commissioners costing about a quarter of a million dollars. Marinelli says that is a question that must be answered by the administration.

"We need some due diligence on it," Marinelli said. "I don't begrudge this executive from putting forth new ideas and new ways of doing business. Often times, we're in agreement, and we do these things. But to announce something before it's happened, creating these kinds of questions, it's hard because there are a lot of things which are in play.

"Our biggest role in county government is providing health and human services."

A letter, submitted by the county executive requesting Helfer's appointment as social services commissioner, is now before the Legislature's Human Serviced committee. Committee Chair Demone Smith is planning to ask Helfer to appear at this Thursday's committee session.