Putnam May Hand Off WIC

Assistance program would be contracted out

By Holly Crocco

Putnam County may discontinue its administration of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and shift services to Open Door Family Medical Centers, which operates a community health center in Brewster.

The federal program pays for food, healthcare referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant women and new mothers, and for children up to age 5 who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Putnam County has been operating the WIC program for about 15 years, although it is not mandated by the state. It is funded through a matching federal grant of about $437,000 annually. In 2018, the county paid an additional $120,000.

Four fulltime and six part-time county employees could lose their jobs if the move is made, Personnel Commissioner Paul Eldridge told Putnam legislators on June 19, but Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Nesheiwat said handing administration of WIC to Open Door is the best decision.

“Open Door offers a lot more than we can offer in regard to services,” he said.

A five-year contract to receive the matching grant expires in 2020, but the county would like to end it on Sept. 30.

Legislator Ginny Nacerino (R-Patterson) explained that the grant money the county receives for the program is based on the number of clients served, which has been dwindling. As such, the funding will continue to be reduced, but administrative and other costs will remain the same, or increase, she said.

Legislator Nancy Montgomery (D-Philipstown) said that while she is impressed with the services provided by Open Door, she is concerned that clients from the western side of the county will not be able to travel to its Brewster location.

Nacerino, however, said that of 915 Putnam clients in WIC, five are from Cold Spring and 23 from Putnam Valley.

“When we try to make decisions, we have to make it for the greater good,” said Nacerino. “Decisions always have an adverse effect on some potential population or group.”

Montgomery criticized her fellow lawmakers for citing fiscal responsibility in moving the WIC program, while previously approving funding improvements made at Tilly Foster Farm.

“We’re advocating for creating wedding venues and golf courses and country-western concerts and putting tons of money into great amenities for the county, and we’re not taking care of our basic needs,” she said. “Taking care of people in need sometimes requires spending some money, and that’s what I want to do as a government official.”

Nacerino countered that such a comparison is not on an even keel. “You can’t just throw everything in the kitchen sink,” she said, noting that the needs of the county are too broad to compare spending in one area versus another.

“No person — woman, child or infant — is going to lack the necessary services,” she said. “This is why I feel this is a win-win situation, because we are not remiss; we haven’t discontinued anything. Everybody will be provided with the same exact services that they have, just under a different venue.”

Legislator Amy Sayegh (R-Mahopac Falls) said the lawmakers do not take the proposal to move the WIC program and potentially displace employees lightly.

“There is not one legislator in this room who is happy about anyone losing their job,” she said. “That is the worst thing.”

Rebecca Wittenberg, director of Putnam’s WIC program, asked the legislators to consider maintaining the program at least through the remainder of the grant cycle, and give the employees a little more time with the county.

“We’ve met with Open Door, they are a very good organization,” she said. “But they don’t give the benefits; they don’t give what the county gives. We know that. That’s why I’ve taken a much lower salary for many years, and I’ve been offered other jobs. But two things: I love public health, and the county — in the long run — takes care of you.”

No action was taken at the June 19 meeting, and discussion on the matter is expected to continue.