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Hidy challenges Russell to support EBT abuse legislation

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MASSENA - Mayor James F. Hidy has spoken out about his concerns over welfare fraud and EBT abuse on several occasions since taking office in January 2011.

Now Mr. Hidy is challenging Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell and the state Assembly to support legislation that moved through the state Senate this week lawmakers say is aimed at curbing EBT abuse

“I would like to commend Senators Griffo and Ritchie (Joseph A. Griffo and Patricia A. Ritchie) for their endorsement of legislation to help curb EBT abuse,” he said. “I think this is a measure that has been long over due.”

In fact, less than six months ago, Mr. Hidy spoke about people using their EBT cards for unnecessary purchases following a presentation from St. Lawrence County Tobacco Free Community Partnership Program Coordinator Benjamin R. Todd.

“People that are in social services, we see them with cigarettes, tattoos and pit bulls, this and that; you talked about controlling costs. Again, that’s a major cost that a taxpayers filtering money to help people stay afloat or to eat, but yet now we’re seeing them buy cigarettes and whatever else they get,” he said at that time.

During the presentation, Mr. Todd noted that taxpayers spend more than $9 million each year supporting Medicaid expenses connected to treatment of smoking related illnesses.

With the state Assembly yet to vote on the measure, Mr. Hidy challenged Ms. Russell to support the legislation.

“It would be interesting knowing the volume of welfare fraud in this county, particularly in Massena, to hear the stance of our assemblywoman,” he said.

Ms. Russell did not return a message seeking comment on Friday.

Mr. Hidy though wasn’t the only person challenging the assembly to pass the legislation.

In a statement issued last week, Mr. Griffo said, “The time to act is now. I urge the assembly to support this common-sense legislation, so that we can continue to receive federal funding to aid our residents most in need.

Mr. Griffo said the legislation is being encouraged by the federal government, which may take away up $120 million in assistance, if the state can’t prove is it making efforts to curb EBT abuse.

“It’s important that we pass this legislation now, so that those on public assistance who play by the rules aren’t hurt,” he said, noting Gov. Andrew Cuomo has expressed support for legislation that would prevent EBT cards from being used to purchase liquor, gamble or be used in strip clubs.

Mr. Griffo added though, that the senate legislation went one step further.

“The Public Assistance Integrity Act, which passed the senate twice, would also forbid EBT cards from being used to purchase tobacco and alcohol products,” he said.

Mr. Hidy called the legislation as it stands now a good starting point.

“At this time I think it’s a good starting point, and it’s certainly a bill that should be embraced in the assembly as well,” he said. “In fact, I’m a proponent of drug testing before an individual is able to receive benefits on the backs of taxpayers when a lot of other people in this country are required to do so when applying for jobs.”

Tracy Wilson, who co-owns T&R Wines & Liquors in Potsdam, said she supports the legislation.

“I totally agree with it,” she said, adding she hasn’t seen customers using EBT cards to make purchases at her store.

A quick survey of liquor stores in Massena also revealed they do not accept EBT cards.

A call to the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino made Friday morning was not returned.

Since taking office, Mr. Hidy said he has spoken with St. Lawrence County Administrator Karen St. Hilaire and St. Lawrence County Social Services Commissioner Christopher Rediehs on several occasions.

“It’s comforting to see the county has stepped up their investigations to address this critical issue,” he said, referring to monthly press releases issued by the county detailing arrests made that month.

Should this legislation ultimately pass, Mr. Hidy said that would be another step towars eliminating abuse of social services programs and welfare fraud.

“I’m optimistic this legislation will take that one step further,” he said.

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