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The Erie County Legislature’s Republican-aligned majority Thursday stalled on a proposal to hire 37 new Child Protective Services workers, despite a consensus that the workers are urgently needed to handle burgeoning caseloads.

During the same Legislature session, lawmakers unanimously approved a $5 million road repair plan that includes hiring 10 additional workers in the county’s Highway Division.

Democratic critics said it showed that lawmakers in the majority caucus might care more about roads than protecting the lives of endangered children across the county.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, speaking at a news conference after the Legislature meeting, said, “It makes me wonder whether they’re prioritizing roads and potholes over protecting children. I certainly hope not, because if that’s the case, it sends a really bad message to the people of this community.”

Legislature Chairman John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park, insisted that the majority caucus was not going to provide the Poloncarz administration with a blank check without first having all their questions addressed about the plan by Social Services Commissioner Carol M. Dankert-Maurer.

“We don’t believe in blank checks. We’ve got to vet this thing just like we did with the road projects,” he said.

Mills said Dankert-Maurer left many questions open during her appearance at a June 3 special hearing held by the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. He said that hearing was lawmakers’ first exposure to the commissioner’s 49-page plan to revamp Child Protective Services.

Rather than approve the plan Thursday, Mills said, the committee will hold another hearing at noon next Thursday, when lawmakers will have another opportunity to further question Dankert-Maurer on her plan, and, possibly, approve her request immediately afterward.

The proposal would add three new CPS teams to the 17 that currently exist, and introduce 12 new part-time investigator positions, all in an effort reduce caseloads that currently average more than 50 per worker. The administration’s plan aims to reduce that to the state-recommended level of 15 cases per worker.

The high caseloads have led to backlogs in CPS, which some have blamed in a spate of abuse cases under investigation by CPS since 2012 that resulted in several children dying at the hands of their parents or caregivers. The most recent was on May 14, when 8-year-old Jacob T. Noe was stabbed to death, allegedly by his mother, in their North Buffalo apartment. A caseworker had been scheduled to check on Jacob’s welfare on the day he died.

His murder followed the death of 5-year-old Eain Clayton Brooks, allegedly at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend last September, and the death of 10-year-old Abdifatah “Abdi” Mohamud at the hands of his stepfather in April 2012.

Following those two deaths, the then-Democratic majority in the Legislature approved an administration request to restructure the Social Services Department that involved hiring six additional CPS caseworkers and introducing three new management positions. Republicans balked at adding the managers, preferring to hire nine caseworkers instead, but the Democrats prevailed.

“The Legislature, in general, is for adding the positions, (but) we have a lot of questions about how we go forward,” Mills said, “because last fall we approved some positions that was supposed to take care of the problem in CPS. It did not. It caused more problems.”

Meanwhile, Poloncarz insisted that lawmakers’ questions were answered at a luncheon he hosted for the majority caucus less than two hours before Thursday’s session of the Legislature.

“There were a number of some really pointed questions, which we answered,” Poloncarz said. “Some of the legislators appeared to have actually reviewed the proposal. I’m not certain every single one of them did.”

Mills said Dankert-Maurer was not at the luncheon meeting to answer questions, which is why the majority caucus wants to take up the issue in committee again next week. Poloncarz said Dankert-Maurer had a prior engagement and was not asked to be present at the luncheon. However, he said, Dankert-Maurer’s second deputy commissioner, Sharon L. Rochelle, was a more than adequate surrogate. Until last winter, Rochelle worked for the state Office of Children and Family Services reviewing the county’s CPS measures.

“So this is the expert when it comes to Western New York Child Protective Services, and they didn’t even want to ask her a question,” Poloncarz said.

Earlier, during Thursday’s Legislature session, Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, verbally sparred with Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, over the majority’s reluctance to sign off on the CPS proposal while lawmakers were poised to unanimously approve allocating $5 million in surplus funds for additional road repairs and hiring the 10 new workers. “I strongly support fixing roads and bridges, but I’m also a strong supporter of fixing children’s lives,” Grant said. “CPS needs those jobs as soon as possible.”

Lorigo insisted that Grant was out of order to bring up the CPS proposal when the majority had already agreed the matter was going to committee. Afterward, Grant accused the majority of acting with politically motivation.

At his news conference, Poloncarz said it was apparent to him that a majority of GOP-aligned lawmakers wanted to approve the CPS proposal, but were persuaded by Mills and Lorigo to stall on the plan.

“I’m disappointed,” Poloncarz said of the delay.

The administration wants to begin hiring new CPS workers by July 1. Mills said that approving Dankert-Maurer’s request by next Thursday will not interfere with the administration’s timeline for revamping CPS.

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com