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Islip officials revamp human services unit

The reorganization of Islip's human services department began in earnest Tuesday after two hours of heated public testimony.

Two weeks after town officials announced a plan to dismantle the department and cut jobs and services, the town board swiftly voted 5-0 at a public hearing to pass two resolutions to enable the reorganization.

Town officials said they won't know until August how many of the department's 113 full- and part-time staff will lose their jobs.

The votes were made despite overwhelming opposition from speakers at the hearing, many of whom defended Access/Acceso, a popular substance abuse counseling program that will be returned to the county.

The program cost the town $540,000 annually; but faced with a $26 million shortfall, officials said the reorganization could save $1.6 million in 2013.

"This decision on my part is certainly not a reflection on our wonderful employees," said Councilman Anthony Senft. "My decision is based upon my opinion that town government does not belong in the business of providing drug and alcohol counseling services."

Most spoke of the need for Access/Acceso -- which treated more than 1,200 people in outpatient counseling last year -- and were unsure where the town's most vulnerable residents would turn.

After being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, Heather Buccino, of Bay Shore, became addicted to painkillers and lost custody of her three children. She said she's been sober for eight months thanks to Access and will soon be reunited with her family.

From behind a large pair of sunglasses, a woman who only identified herself on the sign-in list as Nena-Chavez, and declined later to be identified, spoke through an interpreter about Access. "It's been there that I've found things that have made my life better," she said, imploring the board "not to get rid of this service that is so important."

Renee Ortiz, a former Democratic candidate for town board, brought a petition signed by nearly 200 people, asking that the public hearing remain open for those who work and could not attend the 2:30 p.m. meeting.

"The long-term fallout from elimination of these programs, the loss of services that would develop an increasing unmet need, the job loss for employees of these programs all will have a huge adverse social and economic impact on our town," Ortiz said.

But one former employee applauded the decision. Myra Weinstein said she left a supervisory role at Access in 2006, and she raised questions about the ethics of the managers. "I'm glad we finally have a town administration that insists on accountability," Weinstein said.

After the vote, Senft said the next step is talking with the county and state to "ensure that this transition is done with the clients and employees in mind." The changes will take place Nov. 1.


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