Robert Christopher is retiring as Saratoga County social services commissioner this week, after an almost 38-year career that has included nearly 22 years as commissioner.
“I’m 65, and for me the time is right. I’ve got two small grandchildren,” said Christopher, whose last day will be Friday. “I’d like to spend more time with my wife and do some traveling.”
As social services commissioner, the Saratoga Springs native has overseen one of county government’s largest departments, one that currently has 210 employees and a budget of $56 million, more than one sixth of the county’s annual spending.
The department’s core mission is to provide financial assistance to poor families and individuals who are unable to support themselves, but the department also serves families in crisis, children in foster care, food stamp recipients, home energy assistance clients and Medicaid applicants. It investigates abuse allegations and works closely with Family Court on family and child welfare issues.
“We have an awful lot of regulation. It’s an ever-changing environment we work in. It requires a great deal of flexibility,” Christopher said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Tom Wood, R-Saratoga, said Christopher has done a good job of keeping the department on top of changing state and federal rules, regulations and eligibility requirements.
“Nothing ever gets simpler. They never take a regulation away,” Wood said.
During Christopher’s tenure, the Department of Social Services has repeatedly won awards for the work of its child support collection unit, and in the 1990s it won a state award for reducing its public assistance caseload more than any other county when new “work-fare” requirements went into effect.
“We were taking a very personal interest in the clients, or as I prefer to call them, customers, to identify their strengths,” Christopher said. “Then we’d work with them to get them education or improve their health so they could work.”
At that time, the public assistance caseload was reduced from about 1,500 cases to about 260 cases. Today, it is about 310 cases, up due to the economy, Christopher said.
He estimated that 85 to 90 percent of the remaining cases involve people who for health or other reasons are unemployable.
“We strive to help the able-bodied find employment and to provide services to those who are disabled,” Christopher said.
Other county officials praised Christopher’s work.
“He’s been a tremendous resource,” said county Social Programs Committee Chairman Richard Lucia, R-Corinth. “He’s certainly going to be sorely missed.”
Wood said no decisions have been made on a replacement. “I do know there are some highly qualified internal individuals,” he said.
Christopher is currently earning a salary of $126,149.
He joined the county Department of Social Services as a family and adult services caseworker in 1974, after driving an oil delivery truck while studying English education at what was then Albany State University. He had taken the New York State Professional Careers Exam, which the county then used as a hiring list.
“I did social work, I did field work, I did home visits,” Christopher recalled.
He rose through the ranks within a few years to senior caseworker and unit supervisor, then director of services and deputy commissioner to Russell Piester. At age 43, he was appointed commissioner in 1990, when Piester retired. He is believed to be the third-longest-tenured social services commissioner in the state.
Christopher’s departure continues the pattern of longtime Saratoga County department heads who have retired in the past two years. County Public Works Commissioner Joseph Ritchey retired last spring, following the late 2010 retirements of county administrator David Wickerham, general services director Michael Pratt, county attorney Mark Rider and several others.