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Public assistance applications surge

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Case workers in the county's Health and Human Services department (HHS) are struggling to deal with a new wave of applications for food stamp assistance, the county commissioners learned on Monday.

Other department programs are also seeing high demand for services, managers explained.

The number of food stamp cases here has breached the 2,000 level and stood at 2,028 in December. That compares with 1,856 cases in December a year earlier.

Chuck Lemoine, HHS director, told the county commissioners on Monday, "There's no evidence to suspect that anything is leveling off."

Debbie Melgoza, program eligibility supervisor, told the commissioners, "They just keep coming. We can not explain it. We don't know where they are coming from. The case load is hard to keep up with." Melgoza added that in addition to the current 2,028 cases there are still another 230 new applications pending eligibility review and approval.

"We are really struggling," she said.

Susan Blaine, children's services supervisor, noted that state/federal rules can be a cumbersome burden for HHS staff trying to handle the trend. Programs are overlaced with regulations which lack clarity, which staff can't get consistent answers for, and which are even sometimes changed without notice.

Most human service programs are funded 80 percent with state/federal money, but the county must provide personnel to administer the programs locally. Even though the case load increases, the county's budget doesn't fund new workers to help handle it. On top of that, the federal/state bureaucracy applies tight deadlines for completing 100 percent error-free work, Lemoine explained.

For example, the state human services department will conduct totally random one-time, one-case checks for accuracy. A technician error of $200 on a case can result in a $14,000 penalty assessed against the local department.

Newly hired case workers function with on-the-job training while waiting extended periods for comprehensive state training to be scheduled. Training is often held in Denver, requiring three days off the job to attend.

Blaine reported on Monday that her children's services department is seeing a troubling trend: increased numbers of child welfare referrals resulting in more children being removed from their homes because of methamphetamine or heroine. It is a regional problem, Blaine said.

Another HHS program is still being impacted by coal mine closings, the commissioners learned. Lemoine explained his department wants to reduce the amount of child support payments that are in arrears. In December the child support enforcement unit collected $163,249, but back payments owed remain high. Reasons for that were explained by county attorney Jin Ho D. Pack.

She said that court child support orders are based on annual incomes of $60,000 to $80,000, but coal mine jobs no longer exist to justify those orders. Yet the child support payments have not been changed, thus creating large payment arrears for some.

"This is affecting a lot of conscientious people who are working hard just to keep current," Lemoine said.

Pack said the arrears problem is likely to grow because of the new minimum wage law passed by state voters in November. The higher wage will increase the amount of child support owed by people who, even with the wage increase, will still be struggling just to get by, she explained.

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