St. Lawrence DSS seeks caseload help

The St. Lawrence County Social Services building at 6 Judson St., Canton. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — The St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services legal department continues to face caseload challenges and has moved to again contract with the county attorney’s office for help.

A resolution approved by the county Board of Legislators on Monday would allow the Department of Social Services to contract out support cases to the county attorney’s office for the entirety of calendar year 2021.

Department of Social Services Commissioner Cynthia M. Ackerman told the board child support work would normally occupy a full-time employee, but contracting with the county attorney would ensure that cases are managed.

“With the 2,400 cases a year, that’s pretty huge on the department right now with the push of the court system trying to catch up. That’s where this consideration came to contract with the county attorney,” Ms. Ackerman told the board.

Board Chairman Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, further explained that Department of Social Services General Counsel David Haggard had previously coordinated with the county attorney to manage the cases before realizing the arrangement required a contract with board approval.

“He didn’t have, nor did his staff, his attorney staff, have the time to adequately prepare for the court appearances that they are daily required to attend in the courts and family court,” Mr. Lightfoot told the board. “In order to do that he — I think when he thought of this that this might give him a little bit of additional time to perform that function.”

Several legislators questioned why the DSS would contract out the cases instead of hiring another attorney and managing them in-house.

“Have we determined that that need is currently there? I keep going back to the same question, why would we do this if the situation could be solved within DSS under (Ms. Ackerman’s) jurisdiction,” Legislator John H. Burke, R-Norwood, asked.

In response to Mr. Burke, County Attorney Stephen D. Button said by contracting the services out to his office, it may qualify employees there to have part of their salaries become eligible for reimbursement by the state, as is done with some positions with the Department of Social Services. It would cost the county just under $18,000 per year to hire another attorney.

Ms. Ackerman had cited that budgetary concerns were being brought into consideration in the matter, but also noted that the proposed contract would allow the parties to cut it short after six months. She seemed to suggest that this was to allow time for a current legal intern who has expressed interest in joining the department to take the bar exam and be promoted.

The resolution passed out of committee via voice vote.

Earlier this month, the board authorized the creation and hiring for an additional attorney within the DSS legal department primarily charged with working on the backlog of appeals cases. The office of the general counsel had seen a 100% turnover of staff in the last year, including Mr. Haggard who had previously served on the board. The office returned to full staffing levels last month.

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