After three years resisting the trend to have counties take over municipal general Welfare roles, Secaucus has finally relented, as the Town Council voted on Dec. 12 to turn over its cases.
Secaucus is the last municipality in Hudson County to maintain its own general Welfare roles after the state changed the law in 1997.
The state has moved to consolidate Welfare programs at a county level under the General Assistance Consolidation Plan, part of the Welfare reform law passed in 1997. By urging municipalities to transfer their general assistance and Welfare program to county level, the state hoped to lower property taxes around the state.
Up until this change, municipalities traditionally administered general assistance Welfare, which provides money to childless people in need. (Families with children got money from the county through Aid to Families with Dependent Children.) Over the years, the state has tried to shift assistance to the county. State officials believed that by having the county Welfare office handle both programs, it would be easier for Welfare recipients and save municipalities money by eliminating bureaucracies, especially in smaller towns. In Hudson County, about 2,500 residents receive general Welfare assistance.
Many Welfare recipient already go to the county Welfare office for food stamps and other benefits, and this would be more of less “one stop shopping” and allow towns to eliminate or shift personnel now dedicated to Welfare. The county takeover was designed to eliminate the need to have two people in two different places asking the same questions, leaving towns can spend the money on other things such as property tax relief to expanding other social services.
Secaucus, however, had a special arrangement with the state because the town houses Integrity House, a drug rehabilitation center, from where many of the local cases emanate. The state paid the salary of the caseworkers, which allowed the town to maintain its own program.
“In the past, the county offered to take over our general Welfare program, but we opted not to let them do it,” said Town Administrator Anthony Iacono at the pre-meeting council caucus.
Although the most of the cases come from Integrity House, which is part of the Meadowview Hospital Complex on County Road, some cases come from the other portions of town. Iacono said Integrity House currently has 115 cases, and the town 11. In the past, local officials sought to keep Welfare so as to not force Secaucus residents to travel to Jersey City to meet with case workers.
But several months ago, the town’s only caseworker went out on maternity leave and the existing staff was saddled with the increased work, making the county’s offer more attractive.
“It only makes sense for us to allow the county to take over the services,” Iacono said, noting that the county would send someone to Integrity House to handle the cases there. The move would free the Social Services Department to concentrate providing services to senior citizens such as medical, social and transportation programs.
Secaucus Social Services Director Karyn Urtnowski, when contacted by telephone, said that while her office will no long handle cash assistance, her office will still be open to people with various family problems.
The council tabled a motion until its Dec. 26 meeting that would address the problems with its retirement health care benefit program.
Earlier this month, the town found out that the program it offered allowing its employees to receive lifetime medical benefits after 20 years of service did not meet state mandates. State law requires that a person be in the state retirement plan for 25 years or more to qualify for the program.
The council tabled action on the change because Councilman John Bueckner could not attend the meeting. Bueckner had expressed concerns about the changes and wanted more discussion on possible options. Iacono said the issue has been discussed with town worker unions and will be addressed more fully at the Dec. 26 meeting.
The Town Council also authorized the sale of old vehicles. Officials noted that the North Hudson Regional Fire Department was interested in purchasing one of Secaucus’ old firetrucks and several vehicles. Mayor Dennis Elwell said the town would try to accommodate the fire company, noting that the North Bergen repair facility – a member of North Hudson Regional – has assisted Secaucus numerous times.
The council also voted to insert a $150,000 state grant into the budget. This grant will be used for the upgrade of Schmidt’s Woods park on Mill Ridge Road. The council also agreed to award a contract for work on the Little League concession stand and another contract to install lighting at the Little League field on First Avenue.