Several western counties have been scrambling to create an in-house child support enforcement program after the state announced it would no longer handle the job of tracking down delinquent parents.
Swain, Macon, Cherokee and Graham counties, along with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, have all been affected by the unanticipated drop by the state and are creating programs to handle child support enforcement locally.
Swain County commissioners adopted a plan at their meeting this week after struggling with how best to handle the unfunded mandate, something the cash-strapped county can hardly afford.
The state will save about $4 million each year by cutting the program, which now serves 28 out of 100 counties in North Carolina. The rest of the counties, including Haywood and Jackson, already handle the program in-house.
For a successful takeover, the affected counties must learn how to set child support payments and how to punish deadbeat parents who don’t pay by withholding wages, revoking driver’s licenses, and even sending them to jail. Agents will also be responsible for establishing paternity in some cases.
Agents who work for the tribe will be able to deduct child support payments from the per capita checks all tribe members regularly receive.
Bob Cochran, the director of Jackson County’s Department of Social Services, said the program is a good investment for the community since it strengthens families, affects children’s development and brings some of them out of poverty.
The state DSS has a transition team acting as a liaison to help counties absorb the completely new service.
Plans for these counties’ pick-up of the program must be in place by Jan. 1, with an official takeover slated for July 2010.
A federal reimbursement would cover 66 percent of staff salaries, while performance incentives could help further offset the cost of the new program.
Child support enforcement programs in Haywood and Jackson counties, as well as the state office in Bryson City, have regularly ranked among the top five programs in the state.
Swain County faced three options for taking over the child support enforcement program: housing it under county DSS, costing about $28,000; creating a new department, costing about $57,000, or contracting everything out, costing more than $100,000, according to County Manager Kevin King.
In the face of a budget crisis, Swain naturally went with the cheapest option, which did include an estimated $8,000 raise for DSS Director Tammy Cagle.
About a month ago, the county commissioners denied Cagle the $8,800 raise she requested on a 3-2 vote. Cagle later told King that she was unwilling to take on the extra workload without being properly compensated. King claimed the county could not force Cagle to do the job without the raise since she answers to the DSS board and not the county.
At their meeting this week, commissioners reversed that decision and approved a raise after all. To help get the raise passed, King embedded the program in an overarching budget amendment that would save the county about $493,000.
County Commissioner David Monteith said he felt caught in the middle, since he wanted to vote for the rest of the items in the budget amendment but did not support the idea of giving Cagle a raise.
“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” said Monteith, adding that the raise comes at a time when other employees have had to take mandatory furloughs.
County Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay pointed out that even with the raise, the DSS plan would cost a lot less than the other two options. Both Lindsay and Chairman Glenn Jones said something had to be done regardless, so it was best to go with the least expensive option. The motion for the budget amendment, including the child support enforcement program, passed unanimously.
According to Jane Kimsey, director of social services for Macon County, not much will change for the parents who use the child support enforcement program with the county’s takeover. They would continue to come to the same location for the service, since two state agents were already based at the DSS office.
Chief Justice Bill Boyum with the Eastern Band said that all tribal child support cases will come through tribal court as they had in the past. The tribe is planning for a child support program that will function like other counties’ programs. It will link up to the same computer system that is used statewide.
Some funding for the new program will come from a grant from the Modoc tribe of Oklahoma.
Shannon Cowan, supervisor for the Bryson City office, said there would be an undeniable impact on clientele with the state’s handover. Most of her new employees take two years to really grasp the program and figure out which parents regularly miss their payments.
“It’s not something where a new person could walk in the door and go to work,” said Cowan.
Counties that are likely to offer less money and cannot always accept state employees’ accrued benefits may have trouble luring agents who might move on to other state jobs.
According to Cowan, most of the employees at the Bryson City office have worked there for about 15 years. Cowan said as a state employee, she never expected to lose her job.
“Certainly, we’re all devastated and worried,” said Cowan. “We really don’t know what our future holds.”
Christi Hooper, child support lead agent for Jackson County said it would take “extensive training” just to become familiar with the computer software used across the state.
“The philosophy behind it, the legality, all that is quite complex and then you have to throw in a computer system with 450 screens. It’s big,” said Hooper.