ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Belmont County Department of Job and Family Services has been operating the county's new Senior Services division for seven months, and the services - as well as the need for them - continue to grow.
During Wednesday's meeting of the Belmont County Commissioners, officials said the agency has experienced a significant savings and improved efficiency since duties were taken over from the privately-contracted Belmont Senior Services last year. For many years, the private entity known as Belmont Senior Services (formerly the Belmont County Committee on Aging) has been in contract with the county to provide various services to eligible seniors, utilizing funds generated by senior services levies.
As a result of the county agency's takeover of senior services, several full-time administrative and management positions were eliminated. Many additional duties were disseminated amongst the administrative personnel already in place at the department of job and family services. This resulted in the cost for administrative wages, salaries and related expenses that had totaled around $400,000 annually to be slashed to a fraction of that amount, officials said.
Additionally, the Belmont Senior Services board had been requesting a $900,000 budget increase last year when the contract was up for renewal. Instead, county officials decided that it would be more prudent to let the contract with BSS expire and have the county's department of job and family services take over the operations.
The transition has been fairly smooth, but the additional administrative duties that have been allocated to the staff at the agency - which had already seen increased workloads as a result of budget cuts and downsizing - have become an issue that needs to be addressed, according to Dwayne Pielech, director of the Belmont County Department of Job and Family Services.
"We're adding more people to the program every week," said Pielech, noting that the senior population in Belmont County continues to grow, as does the need and the requests for services through the agency. "We've been doing it for the past seven months, and looking forward, we need some help."
Belmont County Commissioners met in a lengthy executive session Wednesday with Pielech; Belmont County Department of Job and Family Services Human Resources Administrator Lori O'Grady and the agency's Fiscal Administrator Vince Gianangeli to consider the promotion, employment and compensation of public employees. Following the closed-door meeting, the board took action on these proposals.
The board approved the hiring of two new employees for the department of job and family services and one promotion within the agency. Commissioner Ginny Favede cast a dissenting vote on two proposals, stating that she was against increasing administrative costs.
"I feel strongly and adamantly against this," Favede said. "I feel it's disingenuous to the public, and I feel this is the wrong way to go about it. We made the decision (to take over Senior Services) seven months ago, and this is not the way we presented it to the public. We adamantly stated that we intended to reduce costs and possibly, in the future, take off one of the levies. I'm opposed to spending more, just because it's there."
Pielech and Gianangeli indicated that the county is still experiencing significant savings compared to costs under the previous contract. The service needs are growing and additional duties taken on because of the transition to the county agency are presenting a challenge not only on the senior services side, but among all other agencies served by the department of job and family services, they noted.
Commissioner Matt Coffland agreed, stating that the staff at the department of job and family services was already inundated with additional workloads when it took on the new department.
"We took a $4 million business and turned it over to a staff that was already strapped and overloaded," said Coffland, who noted that full-time duties handled by a number of full-time administrators were shifted to the county agency's staff, which already handles duties for all of the department's other divisions and are now devoting a portion of their time to duties in the senior services division. "We can't expect the same results, and we've got to do something now that we've seen that they do need additional help. If the funds are available and our director feels it's necessary - and we're still under costs from before - I feel it's what we need to do to best serve our seniors and the rest of the public served by the department of job and family services."
Coffland added that problems surrounding the previous contract with the private agency included accountability and a lack of communication with the board.
"Communication is the key," said Coffland, who noted that the additional personnel will help provide transparency, accountability and improved lines of communication between the board and the agency, as well as its departments, the seniors and the public alike.
A majority of the board - Coffland and Board President Chuck Probst - voted to authorize the director of the Department of Job and Family Services to hire Eric Ayres as public information specialist and to promote John Regis Jr. from a position as public assistance case manager to budget officer. The board unanimously voted to authorize the hiring of Donald Maupin Jr. as part-time Senior Services employee.
In other action Wednesday, commissioners approved an agreement with Jones-Stuckey Ltd. Inc. to perform load ratings on various county bridges. The project is estimated to cost $92,692, with the Federal Highway Administration providing 80 percent of the funding and the county's Motor Vehicle Gas Tax fund providing 20 percent of the funding. The county engineer has been designated by the Ohio Department of Transportation as the local public agency to let the contract.
Also Wednesday, the board made the following re-appointments to the Belmont County Community Action Commission Governing Board for one-year terms commencing Aug. 1, based on the recommendations of CAC Director Gary Obloy: Stanley Stein of Bellaire; Jody Geese of Martins Ferry; Martha Giffen of Barnesville; Margaret Miller of St. Clairsville and Robert Quirk of St. Clairsville.
(Editor's Note: Times Leader News Editor Eric Ayres was covering Wednesday's board meeting when the hiring issue was unexpectedly brought from executive session to the floor during open session for consideration).
Ayres can be reached at email@example.com.