Improving social services: Commissioners grant extended work week after critical report

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Following a highly critical report by a state ombudsman’s office regarding Montezuma County’s Department of Social Services, the county commissioners granted permission for the department to increase its staff members’ work weeks from 35 hours to 40 – but only after a lengthy discussion.

The board ultimately voted 2-1 in favor of the increase, with Commissioner Keenan Ertel against it.

The vote took place at the commissioners’ Aug. 13 meeting, following discussions in both the morning and afternoon with Social Services Director Gina Montoya.

In the morning, she told the board that many members of her staff are putting in overtime and flex hours, and they need to be able to work 40 hours a week.

Ertel asked why the hours had originally been reduced, and attorney John Baxter said it was a cost-saving move by previous county administrators.

Ertel then asked Montoya why the staff wasn’t able to get their work done with the 35 hours. “My goal is not to grow social services,” he said. “You’re asking us to grow it by $63,000. My goal is not to grow social services.”

The $63,000 would be the county’s portion of the increase in FTE, Montoya told the Four Corners Free Press. Most of the social services budget is not paid by the county but by federal and state revenues.

Montoya said Ertel needed to consider the fact that the county’s population is steadily going up, which means an increase in the caseload for social services. “We have more people in this county that we have to serve,” she said, later adding that the staff is “working their butts off.”

Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said he had reached out to 20 other counties and all of their workers were allocated 40 hours a week. He said an article in the Denver Post about the ombudsman’s report had prompted numerous calls to him, beginning at 6 a.m. the previous Saturday. “I don’t want to have that happen again,” he said.

The 97-page report, based on a ninemonth investigation by an independent office of the state, concluded that Montezuma County broke numerous state regulations and did not respond promptly to complaints regarding child abuse or neglect.

The Four Corners Free Press reported in February that the Office of the Child Protection Ombudsman was investigating concerns about the county’s social- services department.

After being contacted by members of the community, the ombudsman’s office had begun conducting inquiries.

“These inquiries raised case-specific and systemic concerns about the county department’s practices,” the report states.

Commissioner Jim Candelaria said he had been a firefighter at one time and asked whether increasing the work week for the staff would help the situation. “Is this going to cure it?” he asked. “Reporting becomes longer and longer. Is that five hours – does it really fix our situation?”

“The hours are going to help folks get their job done and get it correctly,” Montoya responded.

Candelaria suggested hiring two data-entry persons instead of increasing social workers’ time would save money, but Montoya explained that that wouldn’t help the situation because the case workers have to enter their own notes and data- entry personnel wouldn’t be familiar with those notes. Later, Montoya pointed out that some other county departments have 40-hour weeks for their staff. That includes the landfill and the road department. “I don’t know what more you can ask of people to do and I think 40 hours would help,” Montoya said.

Candelaria said that, considering the ombudsman’s report, he had decided that putting $63,000 toward a 40-hour work week for staff could help improve the situation, and made a motion to that effect.

“Boy, was my world shaken up, getting all those phone calls about a news article in the Denver Post,” Suckla said as he seconded the motion. However, Ertel voted against it.

Montoya said the change would take effect Nov. 1. Suckla said if the longer week didn’t help straighten things out, the weeks could be shortened again.

During public comment at the end of the day, M.B. McAfee of Lewis criticized Ertel’s attitude toward the situation.

“It’s pretty narrow-minded to say you don’t want the social services department to grow when the population is growing,” she said. “The whole county is growing, including people who need social services.”

She pointed out that 80 percent of the social-service budget is pass-through funds from sources outside the county, while other county departments have budgets that are much more dependent on county monies.

She said the commissioners were inviting growth on the one hand, but apparently don’t want it “in a certain segment of the population, and that’s not being very realistic.”

Suckla said “the way that we will get this social services not to grow is you build a big packing plant in Mancos.” He was referring to plans by a local rancher to build a meat-processing plant near Mancos. Suckla said it would provide jobs.

However, McAfee said she had attended a recent discussion on the plant by the Planning and Zoning Commission and the business intends to start with just two to four full-time jobs.

Administrator Shak Powers said what Ertel had been saying was that he hopes the need for social services would diminish.

“We would like to see it shrink. We’d like to see it where no child needed it,” Powers said.

McAfee, a former candidate for a seat on the commission who lost a close race against Candelaria last fall, said that would be ideal, but added, “It’s kind of pie in the sky.”

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