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Published: Saturday, 6/16/2001

Family agency's woes an acid test for Taft

COLUMBUS - When Bob Taft took office as governor in January, 1999, the biggest question was whether he could seize control over that massive amoeba called state government.

Mr. Taft did not have the administrative experience of his predecessor, George Voinovich. If you can run Cleveland city hall and survive to tell the tale, you can run anything and Governor Voinovich ran state government at a time of flush tax revenue in the 1990s.

But before his victory over Democrat Lee Fisher in 1998, Mr. Taft had been the state's chief elections officer, a Hamilton County commissioner, and a state representative - all three jobs slim on administrative heavy lifting.

And so the mess at the state Department of Job and Family Services is not only a real problem for real people, it has emerged as one of several acid tests of whether Mr. Taft can cut it as governor.

Last Thursday, a team assembled by Mr. Taft disclosed that the department illegally had denied even more child support payments to parents who had been on welfare.

State officials did not have a precise figure, but the total may be millions of dollars because the state improperly withheld state income tax refunds and misdirected administrative fees, said Greg Moody, interim director of the Department of Job and Family Services.

“Clearly, mistakes were made,'' Mr. Moody said.

Mr. Taft's team said the department is taking immediate steps to “determine why the correct policies were not implemented four years ago'' and to make changes so “mistakes do not happen in the future.''

The Toledo-based Association for Children for Enforcement of Support isn't buying the talk.

ACES has estimated that the state owes about $15 million to 100,000 custodial parents. So far, the state has sent $1.5 million withheld since October, 2000, but is resisting payments owed back to 1997, said Geraldine Jensen, the group's president.

“I am so frustrated with him,'' said Ms. Jensen, referring to the governor. “He keeps making these promises, but no one has seen the money. What good is the promise?”

How Mr. Taft deals with this problem may be an interesting case study as we head for his re-election campaign next year.

o o o

Last November, voters approved a constitutional amendment to let the state borrow up to $400 million - $200 million to clean polluted sites and another $200 million for “open space” projects such as preserving farmland, river corridors, forests, and wetlands.

The initiative split environmentalists.

Sandy Buchanan, executive director of Ohio Citizen Action, said the initiative “looks like a big slush fund for development.”

The League of Conservation Voters endorsed the constitutional amendment.

“We think it makes a great opportunity to open up brownfield law and take a look at it,'' Cathy Allen, the group's executive director, said in July, 2000.

This year, legislators have worked on a bill on how to distribute the dollars. State officials have estimated the number of sites with known or suspected contamination at 1,800, but state and local officials say there may be thousands more.

The House last week passed the bill and shipped it to the Senate.

State Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) tried to amend the bill to allow the state to request reimbursement from companies if it cleaned up their abandoned land, but GOP legislators said the move was unnecessary because the state already can take that step.

Ms. Fedor was the ranking Democrat on the committee that worked on the bill.

The man she defeated last fall, Republican Jim Mettler, was the sponsor of the resolution that put the constitutional amendment on the ballot last year. He now works on brownfields projects for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority.

How the final version of the bill shakes out is another issue to keep your eye on as the 2002 election year approaches.

Jim Drew is chief of The Blade's Columbus bureau.



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