By MORGAN FRISCH

Recorder News Staff

FONDA —   County Executive Matt Ossenfort announced Thursday that restructuring the Fraud Unit at the Department of Social Services has increased the number of people charged with welfare fraud this year.

“We hear from the public that this is a top concern for them, so we want to make sure that they’re aware that we are doing everything in our power to combat any abuse in the system,” he said.

Commissioner of  Social Services Michael McMahon said there have been six arrests this month and the department is stronger with a better focus since the changes.

The Fraud Unit was reconstructed in 2016, in an effort to make it more efficient. Six-part time workers were transitioned to three part-time fraud investigators, a full-time supervisor and a social welfare examiner.

The changes allowed the unit to cover the entire county more efficiently, while taking stress off the other examiners and making it possible for them to be proactive when searching for people who are abusing and defrauding the system, according to a release issued by the county.

“We are always looking at process improvement,” McMahon said. “I think this was one of those cases where we saw an opportunity last year to kind of do some organizational development around this unit and we are very happy with the results so far,” he said. “It’s proven that’s in working well.”

Previously, examiners would have to go out and find a fraud investigator, McMahon explained. Now, with someone in the office full-time it’s much easier to communicate.

“We are in good shape,” he said. “ As far as when we get a tip, I think we are in better shape now that we can quickly investigate and come to a resolution.”

The collaboration between the Department of Social Services, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, the Amsterdam Police Department, the state Inspector General’s office, the local courts and the District Attorney’s office have been the main reason that this effort has been so successful, according to the release.

Ossenfort said “we are taking a zero tolerance approach to people who abuse the system.”

He said the county is working to be as efficient as possible, as stewards of taxpayer dollars.

“We are going to put all the resources we can in taking a zero tolerance stance for those that are committing welfare abuse,” Ossenfort said. “The system is there for those that need it and that’s who you need to protect.”

District Attorney Kelli McCoski said  while campaigning in 2016, she heard many concerns about individuals  receiving public assistance they were not entitled too.

“I encouraged them to contact commissioner McMahon’s office and that the matter would be fully investigated,” she said. “ In the short time that I have held this position, it has become very apparent that the Fraud Unit has not taken its role lightly.”

McCoski said under commissioner McMahon, the department has become more proactive rather than reactive in these cases.

“I’ve always known this to be a real issue in Montgomery County, absolutely, what I didn’t realize was how diligent DSS is with their team and law enforcement in investigating and making arrests.”

She said the radar sweep [for finding the people committing these crimes] is getting bigger and bigger in Montgomery County and the message is: “It won’t be long until they are prosecuted.”

Montgomery County is utilizing a Resource Recovery Office to attempt to recover funds that were taken by those who abused the system. According to the release, the county is pushing for repayment of abused funds, rather than jail time, when possible. These recovered funds are then brought back into the county and help to alleviate the high costs of these social service programs.

McMahon said the department does a lot of training to keep up with technology because additional portals, where people can get their benefits electronically, cause challenges.

“We have to advance with technology and I think this team will afford that,” he said.  “We will be able to move and grow with technology as technology advances.”

McMahon said Investigative Coordinator Josh Navratil, his team and the community should be credited for helping to combat welfare fraud.

“The public is very important as far as getting information to us,” he said.

Residents in the county are encouraged to report any suspicions of welfare fraud to the Social Services  office in Amsterdam at 212-5829 or visit https://reportwelfarefraud.otda.ny.gov/., and they will be investigated.