After more than 35 years in public service, Gregory Blass, the commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, is stepping down.
Blass, a Jamesport resident married to former Riverhead Town Councilwoman Barbara Blass, has left a rich legacy, according to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
Over the years, Blass has served in positions ranging from presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, New York State Family Court judge, comissioner of the Department of Social Services and as a JAG officer in the United States Navy.
"Given Commissioner Blass’ unique resume, it will be impossible to fill his shoes with someone of equivalent experience," Bellone said. "However, I will work hard to find a worthy successor who shares Greg’s commitment to serving Suffolk’s most vulnerable populations with compassion while at the same time running the department as efficiently as possible."
The Department of Social Services, Bellone said, presents "unique challenges," in that more than 80 percent of its services are mandated.
"With Commissioner Blass’ leadership, the department has worked to accurately and efficiently provide benefits to the people of Suffolk County in a manner that promotes self-sufficiency, protects the vulnerable, and that is fair and responsive to the people we serve," Bellone said. "He worked hard to raise DSS staff morale with an open door policy for them, and was a consistently strong advocate for the working poor, homeless families, and the department."
Blass also created a dedicated training unit to standardize training, improve employee performance and reduce staff turnover, Bellone said.
In addition, Blass created a multi-departmental "homeless outreach" for the "recalcitrant street homeless and homeless veterans" who often refuse governmental assistance.
Over recent years, Blass has served as an advocate for homeless families living at the Wading River Motel and decried the actions of Riverhead Town after a raid at the facility. He has also been a staunch proponent of projects such as the Hidden Cove Motel in Hampton Bays, a homeless facility that sparked discontent among some neighbors.
Bellone said Blass worked at his post during the worst economic decline since the Depression; since 2008, food stamp caseloads have more than doubled, from nearly 23,000 to more than 55,000 and emergency housing requests have "skyrocketed" by 74 percent, from an average of 270 per month to 471.
"Despite these challenges, Commissioner Blass has guided the department forward in a way that best serves Suffolk’s most vulnerable residents," Bellone said. "In 2012 alone, the department averaged a placement of more than a family per day into permanent housing. And, with the implementation of his continuous improvement program and the management efficiency team, has saved a great deal of money in transportation and overtime expenses."
Blass, Bellone said, also was a leader in child support enforcement.
Suffolk County, he said, has a paternity support percentage of 85.6 percent, which outpaces the state average of 80.5 percent; child support collections have led all suburban counties with over $100 million in every year of Blass' tenure and this year, were more than $140.5 million as of the end of November alone.
Blass, Bellone said, has worked hard to abolish the "unfair" homeless sex offender trailers in Riverside and Westhampton. "He shares my commitment to ending the unfair trailer system and his efforts have helped lay the groundwork for a much fairer system," Bellone said.
"Commissioner Blass is fond of noting that in the Bible, it was St. Luke who said that from those to whom much is given, much is expected," Bellone said. "He has truly lived by that motto and I know that Greg Blass will continue to serve Suffolk County with distinction."
Tracey Lutz, executive director of the Maureen's Haven homeless outreach program, said Blass will be missed. "I would say that Greg Blass has been an advocate for all those in need throughout Suffolk County for many years and his legacy of dignified service to all will live on through the people he worked with," she said. "We wish him all the best and will miss working with him."
Blass did not return calls for comment regarding his future plans.