While no official action was taken last week, Putnam County lawmakers appeared poised to disband the Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) program in favor of handing off the responsibilities to a private entity in the county.
During last Wednesday’s personnel committee meeting, most lawmakers seemed ready to transfer WIC services from the county to Open Door, a family medical center, by October. While most legislators stated services would not change for those in need of the program, several county employees in the health department could lose their jobs as a result of the switch.
Between 1,100 and 1,200 resident rely on WIC each year, according to county officials.
There are four full-time workers and five part-time workers whose positions would be eliminated.
Personnel director Paul Eldridge said the county would do its best to help the employees who are in danger of losing their jobs find work elsewhere, whether that be in Putnam government or perhaps at Open Door. Some WIC program workers could even find other jobs in the health department as some of their colleagues plan to retire soon, Eldridge said.
“If this (WIC disbandment) occurs, we’re going to work our butts off to make sure we give them as many opportunities as possible,” Eldridge said.
County fiscal manager William Orr explained there was always “a thought” to disband WIC, but after a nutritionist left earlier this year creating a vacant position, the county decided to explore discontinuing the entire program rather than fill that position. Finance commissioner William Carlin said when the county originally started WIC decades ago, Putnam was a rural county and there was no other organization that could provide these services. Now, non-profits like Open Door exists to fill these needs. WIC is not a New York State mandated program.
While health commissioner Dr. Michael Nesheiwat said he values the WIC employees at the health department, sometimes you have to “sacrifice the part to protect the whole.”
“Open Door can offer a lot more services than we can offer,” Nesheiwat said. “It’s really a one-stop institution for full services. The health department can’t compete with that.”
But at least one lawmaker fought back against losing WIC.
Legislator Nancy Montgomery, the sole Democrat on the board, butted heads with just about every other lawmaker over shifting WIC services. She argued there were still too many unanswered questions about the move, including how residents from the west side of the county would travel to Brewster where Open Door is located. Currently, the county sets up shop in different towns to make it more convenient for participants to get to. Montgomery also said she heard wait times at Open Door are “astronomical.”
Montgomery said it appears like disbanding WIC is already a “done deal.”
When Montgomery asked if the WIC program was running a deficit, Orr said it would either break even or run a small deficit. He noted there’s been a savings because the county has not hired a full-time nutritionist or full-time WIC coordinator. Montgomery argued the legislature has approved high spending for amenities throughout the county, like at Tilly Foster Farm and the Putnam
County Golf Course, which bothered other lawmakers who claimed she was wrongly conflating two different issues.
“Taking care of people in need sometimes requires spending some money,” Montgomery said, adding later. “We’re replacing county employees and public health workers with catering companies and bartenders for Tilly Foster and the golf course.”
“That’s beyond ridiculous,” Legislator Paul Jonke, who appears in favor of moving WIC to Open Door, said. “So stupid.” (Jonke made clear he thought the remark, not Montgomery, was stupid.)
Legislator and personnel committee chair Ginny Nacerino said she and other lawmakers would not agree to move the WIC program to Open Door if there were going to be less services for WIC participants.
“In fact, (services) will be enhanced,” Nacerino said.
Nacerino said even if there are employees or WIC recipients adversely affected, the legislature needs to focus on the “greater good” and look at the “big picture.”
CSEA union president Janet Canaday said WIC workers want to stay with the county. There is one employee who is one year away from retirement and two people who are about a year from 15 years, which would result in better health benefits in retirement,
Rebecca Wittenberg, who is the WIC coordinator, said she was skeptical if the four full- time employees would be able to be placed in other jobs in the county. She said the county should stick with the program for one more year until the federal grant expires.
WIC participants aren’t going to get the personable service at Open Door that they do with the county, Wittenberg said.
“My staff goes above and beyond,” Wittenberg said.