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Essex County hiring policy causes friction

February 18, 2013

ELIZABETHTOWN - A new hiring policy instituted by Essex County late last year caused some friction among supervisors Thursday, Feb. 7.

The board agreed to fill several Social Services and Mental Health department positions at its regular meeting. Supervisors also voted to exempt the Sheriff's Department from a new policy that requires board review of all hiring except for workers at the Horace Nye Nursing Home.

But tension arose during a discussion about the filling of a vacant clerical position in the Department of Social Services. John O'Neill, the department's commissioner, told supervisors that he recently promoted a clerical worker to a case worker position, leaving him with a vacancy that he said is time sensitive.

"We need to fill it, and if it's not approved today, then it'll go through committee and it'll probably be another month-and-a-half before I can actually get another person in there, and right now we're already (behind) three weeks," O'Neill said.

O'Neill explained that the position's salary is 100 percent reimbursable through Medicaid. He told supervisors that other options, like using a part-time employee, weren't viable because the Medicaid caseload was too great.

After O'Neill made his pitch for hiring a full-time clerical worker, county Manager Dan Palmer noted that the hire wouldn't exceed the Social Service department's budget for 2013.

Moriah town Supervisor Tom Scozzafava asked when O'Neill promoted the clerical worker. O'Neill said it was about three weeks ago.

"So I would assume that you had probably planned to promote this individual into that position?" Scozzafava asked.

"No," O'Neill responded. "He interviewed with two or three other outside people. So we didn't know until we interviewed."

Scozzafava said the board enacted its hiring policy and adopted a process for filling positions, and urged O'Neill to "time them a little bit better in the future.

"See, that's what's going to take place here," Scozzafava said. "(Department heads) are going to come in and say, 'You know what, we've got to fill this position.'"

O'Neill disagreed. He said going through the board for every hiring decision creates an "artificial time frame for department heads." In the past, O'Neill would go to Palmer to justify a hire.

Scozzafava continued to press O'Neill, saying he could have brought the potential hire to the Human Services Committee three weeks ago.

"I'm just saying in the future, if you've got ample time, try to follow the procedure," Scozzafava said.

Following several minutes of back and forth debate between the two, North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi expressed his frustration with the process.

"I guess my own question is to Mr. Scozzafava: If (the position) is 100-percent reimbursable, what difference does it make?" he said. "Why are we wasting our time?"

"So anything that's 100-percent reimbursable, we just let go by? We just fill it?" Scozzafava said.

"I think it's an exception," Politi said.

The board ended up voting unanimously to approve the hire. Supervisors also agreed to let the Mental Health department fill a vacant typist position and approved the temporary hiring of a worker to handle Home Energy Assistance Program applications.

Meanwhile, the board voted overwhelmingly to exempt the Sheriff's Department from the new hiring policy because the department is required to meet state-mandated staffing levels based on the number of cells at the county jail.

Westport town Supervisor Dan Connell, who voted in favor of the exemption, said he wants Sheriff Richard Cutting to use more part-time workers so the county can avoid overtime costs.



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