By JOE LoTEMPLIO
---- — PLATTSBURGH — For the past 17 years, Jay T. LePage has headed one of the busiest departments in Clinton County.
He has managed to do so mostly flying under the radar. But make no mistake, this man has kept plenty busy.
“People don’t realize just how many people and how much money comes through this department,” LePage said recently.
“We see about $111 million in Medicaid benefits and about $19 million in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) each year, and our staff deals with about 22,400 visitors each month in one form or another.”
LePage, 63, has retired as commissioner of the county’s Department of Child and Family Services, effective April 26. He sat down with the Press-Republican recently to talk about his career and the issues his department had to deal with.
A former county legislator from Area 7 in Peru, LePage took over the department on Dec. 4, 1995, after serving in the legislature for six years.
The department has about 200 employees providing county residents with numerous services.
Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP, public assistance, Social Security Disability and Child Protective Services are the main divisions of the department.
Those have been known to be among the most costly of government programs for counties across the state, but LePage and his administration have been able to keep costs manageable, something of which he is proud.
“We’ve been able to keep our local share of the budget under 1 percent of growth per year, and we’ve worked hard to keep costs down.”
The local share of the department’s budget is about $48 million.
Despite their best efforts to control costs, the number of clients has risen throughout LePage’s career.
The number of people receiving Medicaid when he took over was about 6,900. Now, it’s about 17,000.
Those receiving SNAP went from about 5,700 to 11,895 this year.
“The numbers have mushroomed in the last couple of years, especially with the economy being the way it is,” LePage said.
While the numbers in those programs are up, the count of local people receiving traditional welfare is down from about 3,000 in 1995 to around 1,400. Of those 1,400, about 750 are children.
“We try our best to get people back to work,” LePage said.
“A lot of people don’t realize that we have a lot of working poor in this county.”
Dealing with the growing number of clients is not the only challenge LePage and the department have faced. The rising cost of health care continues to be a burden.
“Do you know of any other industry that is allowed to raise prices by three to four times the rate of inflation every year for 20 years?” he said.
“It’s just crazy.”
Dealing with the daily challenges of providing social services can’t be done without a great staff, LePage said, which he has been blessed to have.
“We always want our staff to buy into our values and our vision, and they have been unbelievable.
“I would put them up against any employee staff in the county. It’s amazing how hard they work in a never-ending work environment that is not always pleasant.”
It takes more than just a few pep talks from the bosses to motivate staffers. LePage said the key is to get them involved in decision making.
“We try to build the skills of the staff and enhance our vision and values, as I’ve said, and that has made us one of the best (Social Services) offices in the state.”
In 17 years at the helm, LePage said he has had to deal with only one grievance from the staff.
“Communication is the key. We are not a top-down organization or a singular organization. There have been a lot of people involved in leading the charge.
“I get disappointed when I hear people talk about government employees in a negative way. We believe there is good government, and a lot of things can be done well if the employees are left to do their jobs. And the county taxpayers deserve to have the best-run department.
“They (staff) have to say ‘no’ to people sometimes, but they have respect for the clients, and that’s important.”
The staff, in turn, say that LePage has made work enjoyable.
“He has been just great to work for,” said Christine Peters, director of legal and social services, who has worked with LePage for nine years.
“He is a very thoughtful boss, and he helps everybody be the best they can be.”
Paula Dew, a caseworker for 28 years, said LePage has been great to everybody, not just the staff.
“He has been very supportive of what we do and of the families that we work with,” Dew said.
Torrie Waldron, a senior child-support specialist for 10 years, put it simply as she wrapped her arms around LePage on his final day at the office.
“I love this man,” she said. “It’s been a huge plus for us that he gets to know his employees and is very hands-on and helps us.”
FREEDOM TO WORK
In addition to the staff, LePage gives credit to the legislature for supporting the department and giving him the flexibility to run the operation.
“We’ve been allowed to run the place as we need to, and they have not micromanaged us,” he said.
Legislature Chairman Jimmy Langley (R-Area 7, Peru) said he has mixed feelings about LePage leaving.
“On one hand, we are happy Jay will get to spend much-needed time with his family. On the other hand, we will be missing not only an excellent department head but a kind and caring person.
“Jay is leaving a legacy of fine work, and we will truly miss him,” he said.
DEPUTY TAKES OVER
Legislators agreed to replace LePage, who was earning $103,448, with his deputy of the past 16 years, John Redden.
Redden, 54, is receiving a salary of $84,000.
“That department is one of the most difficult agencies to run because it is so complex and deals with so many different issues,” Legislator Sara Rowsen (D-Area 4, Town of Plattsburgh) said.
“I am so glad that John has agreed to take over.”
Legislator Robert Heins (R-Area 10, City of Plattsburgh) agreed.
“We are very fortunate to have an individual within the department that understands the issues and services and the budget. I am glad John is taking over.”
“It speaks volumes for the county when we are able to promote from within like that,” Legislator Sam Dyer (D-Area 3, Beekmantown) said.
Redden said he looks forward to the challenge.
“These are huge shoes to fill,” he said. “Jay has been one of the best commissioners in the state for the past 17 years, and I’ve been fortunate to serve as his deputy.”
LePage is confident his successor will carry on the values of the department.
“He has been a very loyal deputy, and loyalty is very important to me,” LePage said.
“I am very happy he will be taking over. There won’t be a lot upheaval.”
CULTURE OF POVERTY
An avid golfer, LePage will ease into retirement this summer by playing a few more rounds than usual before heading to Florida for a few months next winter.
As he looks back on his career, the one area he wished he could have seen more success is in Child Protective Services.
The county deals with about 1,800 calls per year, about the same as when he took over.
“I am a little disappointed that we haven’t been able to change the dynamic of CPS,” he said. “The number of calls are still about the same.”
LePage speculates that rising poverty levels are a big factor in Child Protective Services cases, as is drug and alcohol abuse.
“It’s hard to put your finger on one dynamic, but it’s the culture of poverty, and no politicians are talking about it, and the numbers keep going up,” he said.
“Thirteen percent of this county lives in poverty, and it’s about 20 percent for those under 18. It is a culture that some people don’t want to deal with, and people get stereotyped. You have to have patience and skills to work in this area.”
LePage said that while it is nice to be toasted upon retirement, he wants his staff to get credit for all that has been accomplished under his watch.
“I would just like people to remember that I had a passion for what I did and I wanted to help people have a good life.”
Email Joe LoTemplio:firstname.lastname@example.org