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."