HUDSON–“After 30 years of public service it’s a good time for a career change and it’s a good time for the DSS to gain new leadership,” said Paul Mossman, 55, the departing commissioner of the Columbia County Department of Social Services during an interview at his office last week. “If you wait for the right time it will never happen. I’m young enough to continue in a professional career and look forward to finding out where life will take me next.”
During a career that began with caseworker posts in Adult Services and Child Protective Services, Mr. Mossman was promoted to staff development coordinator, and deputy commissioner positions before becoming commissioner in 2003.
Before entering DSS, Mr. Mossman taught for three years at the Chatham Middle School. While there he observed different levels of parental involvement in school with his higher achieving students than he saw with groups of average and below average students. He says that his curiosity about that question got him interested in shifting his career aspirations to social services.
One week before his successor, Interim Commissioner Kary Jablonka was due to come on board for six weeks of in-tandem work, Mr. Mossman looked back on the challenges and successes of his administration.
During his tenure, he said, “We have not seen a decline in the number of new people who come in daily to apply for services…. As a society we need to grow these types of services.” Many in need of help come in because they are not able to survive on minimum wage jobs, or because they cannot find affordable housing.
The commissioner called the county’s failure to open a homeless shelter his biggest disappointment. Several times during the past half decade the project gathered support until it seemed on the verge of becoming a reality. In 2009, DSS proposed buying the St. Charles Hotel for conversion into a shelter, but public opinion was against it. Since that time, the Moon Report issued in 2010, and proposals from Cares, Inc. the following year, and from the Mandratha foundation helped the initiative gain momentum.
In 2012, a plan launched by the Galvan foundation with the Columbia-Greene Mental Health Association to build a facility on State and 7th Streets fell apart when the county was unwilling to agree on the time limit and other details of the contract. All along Mr. Mossman and the supervisors who sit on the county Board of Supervisors Social Services Committee agreed that such a facility would be a more humane, cost effective and efficient solution to the problem. Then new figures showed a downturn in the homeless population and today the county’s 54 homeless individuals (down from over 100 four years ago) remain in temporary motel housing while, according to the commissioner, unmet needs remain. One improvement in the situation is the contract with St. Catherine’s to be the full-time case manager for homeless families.
“I always wanted to move forward with a transitional housing program that would include an emergency shelter and affordable housing. The costs of food, gas, heat, and life essentials have gone up while benefits have remained the same. How are people expected to survive at these levels? It’s been years since benefits have gone up.
“Where do you find affordable housing for people below the poverty line?” asked Mr. Mossman.
The lack of jobs that pay a living wage that allows people to live in the community is another problem that Mr. Mossman mentioned more than once. “The job market is more competitive than ever. Entry level jobs are now taken by people who have been displaced from other jobs,” he said, recalling that a recent entry level job at DSS drew 20 applications, many of which were from people with advanced degrees in social work.
In spite of the disappointments, a job training program, a welfare fraud initiative, internal staff training programs and recognition of the department’s child support program are accomplishments that the commissioner is proud of.
The Welfare Fraud unit, which Mr. Mossman started six years ago, worked with the county legal department and with law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office to recover money lost through liens, fraud and overpayment, recovering $300,000 during its first year, with the amount rising above $400,000 in 2013.
During Mr. Mossman’s tenure as Commissioner DSS received recognition for its work in the area of child support. The agency was named 10th in the state for establishing paternity, parental support and enforcement of collection. The number of children in foster care is down, while adoptions and numbers of children returning to their families or to independent living are up.
The commissioner is also proud of the fact that during a tough economic period, staffing levels have been maintained even though caseloads have gone up.
The county considered moving DSS to a new location while he was in charge, though both the former Walmart store on Fairview Avenue and the former Ockawamick school building near Philmont were both rejected by the Board of Supervisors. Commissioner Mossman believes that the choice to keep DSS in the City of Hudson was wise.
“Challenges remain and the next commissioner must realize that the department can’t do it alone. It will have to work with other agencies and service providers.
“Looking back over 27 and a half years, I consider myself to be very fortunate to get to move up in an organization I love working in and to have the opportunity to give back to the community I was raised in. I will miss the most challenging job I’ve ever had. I’ll miss most everything that goes with it, especially all the people I’ve had the honor and privilege of working with.”
One of the staff Mr. Mossman will continue to see is his wife, Christine, whom he met on the job when he was appointed to the post of staff development coordinator and had to work closely with the commissioner and the commissioner’s secretary, the position she still holds. By the time Mr. Mossman rose to the position of commissioner, the couple were married. They have worked together for 20 years, and now Mrs. Mossman will remain in the job after her husband retires.