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December 1, 2010 - 7:57pm

Genesee Justice gets a five-day reprieve

posted by Howard B. Owens in budget, Genesee Justice.

legmeet_genjustice.jpg

Genesee County's world-renowned restorative justice agency is spared the budget ax for at least five more days.

A proposal by Genesee Justice Director Ed Minardo to cut staff hours and eliminate his own job deserves further study, all nine legislators agreed during a budget discussion meeting at the Old Courthouse this evening.

While the proposal comes close to eliminating all of the expense necessary to keep the county budget balanced, more savings must be found.

But the big unresolved question is will the county's employee union, the Civil Service Employees Association, allow Genesee Justice staff to cut their own hours.

If CSEA blocks the reduction in hours, Minardo's entire plan to save Genesee Justice could collapse.

"The unions have to agree," said County Manager Jay Gsell. "We tried something similar to this with Job Development Bureau when we lost some grant funding and they said, 'don't come near here.' They don't want to make changes to the work force that create different tiers of employees."

Minardo said he hopes that by giving Genesee Justice at least one more year of life, new funding sources can be found, primarily through the creation of a charitable foundation.

"What I'm saying is take a leap of faith and take me out of the picture for right now," Minardo said. "Let us look and see if in the next year we can find more concrete funding streams. Let us see if the community will support Genesee Justice."

There are a couple of leaders in the justice community who have already offered to serve on a foundation board, Minardo said.

The idea of eliminating Genesee Justice -- a pioneering restorative justice program founded with grant money 30 years ago -- first arose in Gsell's preliminary budget proposal a few weeks ago. Gsell was under orders from the legislature to cut spending and not raise taxes.

The Criminal Justice Advisory Council -- a group of leaders in the local community justice system  that is currently chaired by Minardo -- has been working to find ways to reduce expenses to save the program. The Sheriff's Department offered more cuts to its own budget and according to District Attorney Lawrence Friedman, as of yesterday, the budget gap had been closed by less than $100,000.

Then late today, Minardo presented his proposal to the legislature, closing the budget gap to less than $12,000.

Genesee Justice's programs include handling Release Under Supervision (RUS) for pre-trial offenders, DWI conditional discharges, community service for offenders, advocacy for abused children and victims' assistance.

Under Gsell's initial proposal, the Probation Department would have assumed all of those duties except for child advocacy and victims' assistance. Child advocacy, which is entirely funded by grants, would have remained with the Sheriff's Office.

In Gsell's revised proposal, presented today along with Minardo's proposal, most functions still move to probation, but the District Attorney's Office would take over the victims' assistance program.

Friedman said the district attorney's offices in 38 counties in the state handle victims' assistance, so it's not an unusual thought, yet he's uncomfortable with the idea.

"This is not the ideal solution to say the least," said Friedman in response to a question from Chairwoman Mary Pat Hancock. "I certainly don't want to be in a position of competing with Ed (Minardo) to provide these services.

"This is not something I want to do. My position is that Genesee Justice should remain intact. That is best for the county in the long run and the best way to keep costs down."

Legislators balked at acting on Minardo's proposal with key questions still unanswered. And more than one person said they couldn't support it unless it could be made "budget neutral," meaning Minardo's plan needs to eliminate as much expense as Gsell's proposal.

Hancock expressed both support for the idea and admiration for Minardo's self-sacrifice, but also said she felt obligated to support the directive given to Gsell in the first place.

"The people who have come forth on this particular issue are people I respect," Hancock said. "These are people who don't usually take such strong stands on issues. I know they like us. They're not against us, but they're wondering why we're doing this. They must be right, but strangely I think I'm right."

There is no way, Hancock said, the legislature can consider a tax increase.

"We must shrink the size of government because we're a burden to our constituents," Hancock said. "We can't go back on that now."

Legislator Jay Grasso questioned the validity of the Genesee Justice program based on Minardo's proposal, saying that all of its supporters had argued that the level of service provided by Genesee Justice couldn't be diminished, but it seemed like Minardo's proposal would do just that.

"I'm concerned that the director's position never really was necessary," Grasso said. "At the 11th hour, this is a lot to digest and I wonder why we were even paying for it in the first place."

Friedman immediately jumped back into the conversation and made the point that Minardo's offer to eliminate his own job was being made not because it isn't a necessary role, but it's the only way to continue the good work of Genesse Justice and see if a long-term solution for financial support could be found.

"This is the next best possible solution," Friedman said. "Ed would rather lose his job than see the agency disappear and I respect him for that. I don't think it should be looked on as saying his position is unnecessary."

As for diminishing the services, Friedman said moving Genesee Justice's functions to probation would do just that. In comparing the two plans, he said, the original proposal would result in even fewer man hours devoted to the functions of Genesee Justice than in Minardo's plan to reduce staff hours.

As for cutting hours and needing CSEA's approval to do so, Minardo made the point that while recently employees have been authorized for 37 1/2-hour work weeks, Genesee Justice has also been staffed at times by employees who worked 30 and 35 hours a week.

The discussion ended with Legislator Hollis Upson saying there was a lot to consider in Minardo's proposal, that he certainly respects the recommendation of CJAC, but that before the legislature can approve Minardo's idea it must be proven that it is budget neutral.

"It’s a very unusual move to offer the sacrifice that Ed has offered and I think he deserves for us to give it some real time and consideration."

Kyle Couchman
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Grasso is quite a character wondering why the expenditure and trying to twist Minardos sacrifice into him leaving an unneccessary position. Especially when he is going to waste taxpayers money with his little court shenannigans. The rest just looks like more posturing and bs to me. Unrealistic goal to keep the tax rate steady in the biggest financial crisis the state and country have been in since the depression. If you look at the county's past tax rate we were at over 10% back in 05-06 then it was lowered to what it is today. Why is it so ridiculous to raise it a bit this year then lower it next year. I mean come on it isnt rocket science, everyone is doing this in their home lives as it is. I'll tell you what...they get rid of Genesee Justice then thing fall apart and costs skyrocket because of this particular decision, everyone's gonna remember it and I dont think you'll see many of these legislators back in their chairs.... Mark my words
Bea McManis
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Posted by Kyle Couchman on December 1, 2010 - 8:28pm I'll tell you what...they get rid of Genesee Justice then thing fall apart and costs skyrocket because of this particular decision, everyone's gonna remember it and I dont think you'll see many of these legislators back in their chairs.... Mark my words Sadly, you are wrong. They will be back over and over. The Republicans own this county. Nothing will change regardless of what happens.
Howard B. Owens
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Tell that to Doug Call.
Bea McManis
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There are exceptions to the rule, but the rule still stands. Someone once said, "you could paint a big red R on a cow, and the cow would get elected". That wasn't too far fetched.
John Roach
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How is this a Republican or even Democratic thing? It could be 8 Dems and 1 Repub. telling the manager no tax increase, period. What would be different?
Daniel Jones
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I have a high level of respect for DA Larry Friedman. As the County's prosecutor he knows better than anyone else what needs to be done to administer justice in this county, I take him at his word that keeping GJ is the best move for the administration of justice. Period.
Daniel Jones
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Howard, this was very well done coverage. Hats off.
Howard B. Owens
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Thank you.
Chelsea O'Brien
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I have a question concerning keeping Genesee Justice around. Why hasn't privatization been considered? If it's victims assistance is being paid for by grants, then the same work done by a 501(c)(3) should also be covered. The services offered to those referred by the criminal justice system could be paid for by the county on a case-by-case basis. In order to become financial sustainable, it could host educational programs and possibly offer services to neighboring counties. This way, the payroll and overhead could be covered by other sources, and Genesee County would only have to pay for the services it contracts out. Granted, there would have to be money for the transition, as well as a grant writer and backing to become a legitimate non-profit, but why hasn't it been considered an option?
Kyle Couchman
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That does make sense Chelsea, but probably because it does make sense it wont even be considered.
Dave Olsen
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Great comment Chelsea.
Bea McManis
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Good idea Chelsea. There are others who feel that no county money should be paid for this program since they receive no benefit from it. How can you reconcile the county money being spent on contracted services yet appease those who only want county taxes supporting services they, themselves, use?
Peter O'Brien
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There are others (your husband) who feel that no county money should be paid for this program since they receive no benefit from it. How can you reconcile the county money being spent on contracted services yet appease those (your husband) who only want county taxes supporting services they, themselves, use? Fixed.
Howard B. Owens
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We all receive a tremendous benefit from Genesee Justice, from lowering tremendously expenses for jailing inmates to lower crime rates and wayward citizens being turned into productive citizens (making more of a contribution to the tax base). The idea that there is a person in Genesee County who doesn't benefit from Genesee Justice is just plain ridiculous. As for totally privatizing, not all grants can go to non-government agencies. Also, in working with offenders and victims there is information that needs to be exchanged among agencies that would be impossible if Genesee Justice were essentially an outside agency. Not everything within the criminal justice system is public record; not that I agree with such secrets, per se, but if GJ were a non-government agency, it would have no more right to confidential information than I have (or you have). And that would greatly impede its ability to be effective.
Dave Olsen
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That's not true, Howard. A contract can require specific security measures of a vendor. It can for example, require background checks of employees, or require periodic audits of training or security records. Quite frankly there's not much the county does which could not be privatized. The parameters just have to spelled out when bidding the contract out, and the rules enforced.
Dave Olsen
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Howard B. Owens
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Thanks for the info, Dave.

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