While Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone praised his leadership, the years Gregory Blass spent as head of the county’s Department of Social Services were marked by two contentious issues for Southampton Town residents: the continued operation of a pair of trailers housing most of the county’s homeless sex offenders and the more recent conversion of a Hampton Bays motel into a homeless shelter.
Mr. Blass, 62, who announced his early retirement last week, was appointed DSS commissioner in 2009 and, prior to that, held various public service positions over the course of his 35-year career, including serving as presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature.
“I have been mulling it over for a few months now, but I guess the clincher was when someone told me over the holidays that no one ever spends their last days regretting that they didn’t work longer,” Mr. Blass said, explaining his decision to resign. “I’m at the age where you think about the things you still have to do in life.”
Though Mr. Bellone has given no hints regarding a potential replacement, Mr. Blass, who lives in Jamesport, said he has taken care to tie up loose ends in the department before leaving office at the end of the month. He added that the DSS commissioner plays a “pivotal role” as head of the county’s largest department, which has an annual budget of about $640 million.
“It’s conceivable that there would be a change,” he said. “What my successor will do is partly up to him or her, partly up to the state and partly up to the county executive and legislature.”
Mr. Blass’s resignation comes just weeks before Mr. Bellone is expected to reveal a comprehensive plan readjusting the county’s response to the rising number of homeless—a plan that he has promised will do away with the two trailers, one in Westhampton and the other in Riverside, that currently house most of the county’s released sex offenders.
Mr. Blass said he inherited the trailer program, which was established under his predecessor, Janet DeMarzo, and he said he spent much of his time in office working toward a solution. Though he had hoped that the trailers would be done away with before he retired, Mr. Blass said he is confident that Mr. Bellone will make good on his promise to remove them.
Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, who has criticized Mr. Blass in the past for locking her and other town officials out of the decision process, expressed optimism that Mr. Bellone’s plan will not only remove the trailers but also will address the 32-unit homeless shelter at the Hidden Cove Motel in Hampton Bays.
“All I’m asking for is a seat at the table, as I think my colleagues in their municipalities would ask for,” she said. “We don’t for a minute discount the fact that we share in the social responsibility to help individuals in need in accordance with the law.”
While responsible for overseeing a wide array of programs, such as food stamp distribution and Medicaid services, Mr. Blass said it has been increasingly difficult for his department to provide housing for homeless families in the county, the number of which has jumped from 271 in 2007 to 447 in 2012.
“It’s one of the most complicated of our programs because there is virtually no public support for sheltering the homeless,” he said. “The remarkable irony is these facilities, these places that become shelters are better for a community than what they were before.”
The Hidden Cove shelter has been the source of much exasperation for Ms. Throne-Holst, community members and town officials who staunchly opposed its violation of county and town zoning laws.
“It is a focus of an uproar,” Mr. Blass said. “It is an operation that is honest, it is effective, it is programmatically sound and in compliance with state and federal law. We are struggling to comply with local zoning laws, but we are not going to be held prisoner by them.”
Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman expressed frustration at Mr. Blass’ repeated assertion that, as an agent of the state, his department and the shelters it provides are not subject to county or local laws. “I would hope that the Social Services commissioner would work closely with the county executive,” he said.
Though there has been talk of DSS submitting an application to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance for an upgrading of the Hidden Cove shelter from Tier I to Tier II status, which would require that more services be available for residents and lengthen the time that residents are permitted to stay at the facility, Mr. Blass said his department has not yet submitted such an application. He added that the decision to file one is now up to his successor.