Meet the new head of Social Services
Jamesport resident Greg Blass takes some time out with the News-Review
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Mr. Blass, who was named chief deputy commissioner of the department in 2007, will take the reins from Janet DeMarzo as DSS commissioner and serve for the next five years.
He'll oversee a staff of 1,700 people and manage a range of human service programs that includes Medicaid, food stamps, temporary assistance, Child Protective Services and foster care.
Mr. Blass served in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps; spent 12 years as a county legislator, three of them as the presiding officer; and was elected a family court judge in 1995. He'll be sworn in today, June 25, in Hauppauge.
Mr. Blass is married to Riverhead Town Councilwoman Barbara Blass, and many in Riverhead hope his East End ties will help influence a change in the county's policy of housing homeless sex offenders in Riverside and Westhampton.
Here's what he had to say about that, and his new role at DSS:
A: I grew up in Freeport, Long Island, and spent much time on the North Fork.
Q: What brought you here?
A: What brought me here to live mainly was that Jamesport was, and is, much like Freeport had been. While I was still on active duty, I found a small house on the water that I was able to afford, using what I saved during the time I was in the Navy for the down payment. After all, my grandmother, whose name was Tuthill, was raised on a farm in Riverhead. My plan was to take a job at a law firm in the city and rent the house to someone. As I was fixing up the place, however, I decided that this was my home-to-be, and once I was a civilian again, that's where I stayed, finding a job as an associate in a small firm in Riverhead. That was in 1978.
Q: I know you ran for Congress 20 years ago. Would you switch places with, say, Congressman Bishop right now if you could?
A: Yes, I ran for Congress in the '80s, before Barbara and I had children. At this stage of life, I believe I can do more locally. I am involved in certain volunteer work here, and have grown too attached to my family and home.
Q: What would you say is different about social services versus running a building or highway department?
A: Here, one uses one's God-given gifts, such as they are, to help people and families who are truly in need, often at the most desperate stage of their lives. Also its sheer size is so challenging. Suffolk DSS has an annual budget of over $550 million, mostly from state and federal revenue sources, and we are responsible for a daunting array of programs and services.
We also operate four major social services centers, which are the ERs of our system and which are being overwhelmed in today's bad economy. I have sat in the center lobbies as an observer, to see how well our staff interacts with the public, and I have to say, your heart goes out to the endless cases of personal setbacks and tragedy. We have record numbers of applicants for assistance from those who never before sought government help.
It is the role of DSS to get all of our clients back on their feet, to become self-sustaining once again, to contribute on their own to their families and to their communities. Certainly those who devote their work to other government roles such as those you mention do very important things every day. In their own way, they make the world a better place as well.
Q: Do you ever get overwhelmed or lose sleep thinking about how many lives are affected by on the decisions being made out of your offices?
A: I learned way back that if you take a humanistic approach to public service, as I have always tried to do, the overwhelming side of all that you see gets replaced by always trying your best, knowing that each and every step you take to help someone will make the world a better place. I know that can sound like lofty cliché sometimes, but it's really true. In the Bible, it was St. Luke who said that from those to whom much is given, much is expected. At DSS, it turns out that you can meet such expectations on a grand scale. And no matter how sad or heart-wrenching the cases that come before you may be, you will find some comfort in the difference you can make by trying your best, and using all those special skills each of us has in our unique way, to make things better
Q: What would you like to see Suffolk County do better at DSS?
A: I take this question as asking what DSS can do better, and I will start with our workers' morale. It can be a thankless task to work in our centers examining case applications and agency contracts, state regs and emergency responses of all kinds. I intend to reach out to staff at all levels, holding confidential discussions with them on how they think we could do better. DSS should also have a closer relationship with the various food pantries and soup kitchens in this county, and County Executive Steve Levy and I plan to work together on that. DSS also will strengthen its contacts with local housing code enforcement, something the county executive has begun and which we will build upon. Also, DSS depends on hundreds of private, nonprofit agencies to carry out our mission, and we will start to reexamine our contracts with them, some of which have been in effect without much change for many years. Finally, DSS needs a stronger relationship with the mental health services offered by the state and private sector. Too many of our cases have a mental health feature we are not equipped to address.
Q: Many people I have spoken to here feel that your being from Riverhead will lead to a policy change on the homeless sex offender trailers in Riverside and Westhampton. Would that be accurate?
A: Owing to the current lawsuits concerning the sex offender trailers, one of which will be the subject of a hearing in Supreme Court in the next few days, I regret that I cannot comment on this troubling issue. I can say that I have a very open mind on how this issue can be resolved, and I know from my discussions with him that the county executive does as well.
Q: Is there anything you would like to see your office do better with respect to sex offenders? Certainly everyone understands there are no easy answers.
A: I refer you to my reply to the previous question.
Q: How many years have you been in public service?
A: If you count enlisting in the U.S. Navy with active duty in Navy JAG, the volunteer work I have done, I have been in public service full- or part-time since I was in high school, for about 35 years.
Q: Looking back, what was your favorite role or position?
A: This is hard to say, but probably as a family court judge.
A: A judge in Family Court is presented with thousands of cases which are for the most part almost hopeless, involving children whose lives are in real danger, often from their own families. The challenge and reward in that job was to be able in at least some instances to turn those situations around, where the children soon have bright futures. I did that for 10 years, and enjoyed it immensely. Looking back, however, I don't know for sure if I could have done it much longer.
Q: Where might locals find Greg Blass on a sunny day in Riverhead?
A: I might be with my family at home, on the beach or on the kayak, or walking along the road with one of my best friends, a terrier named Toby.
Q: You're taking over as the head of DSS during some tough financial times, which has led to increased demand for your agency's services. What do you think will be the greatest challenge over the course of the next year?
A:The greatest challenge over these next few years will be to do more with less. The smart government approach which is the objective of this administration is more of a challenge for DSS. The same economic conditions which make it so tough to keep our staff positions filled are also raising our case loads and leaning ever so harder on our programs and services. We will meet that challenge as we have so far, but it will be our most difficult.
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