COLUMBUS - Governor Taft yesterday issued an executive order committing Ohio to an expensive audit of welfare accounts to identify families whose child support was withheld improperly by the state.
Reconstructing of data as much as three years old, held at the county level, is expected to cost a $18 million and involve many county employee work hours. That doesn't count the estimated price tag of $21 million awaiting the state at the end of the process, when it issues checks to the affected families.
The state estimates roughly that up to 165,000 families could have been affected. No decision has been made on whether the state also will pay families interest.
Greg Moody, interim director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, admitted that, at first glance, it may not make sense to spend $18 million to identify $21 million. But he said he believes it will be money well spent.
“The credibility of the whole system has been questioned,” he said. "I want to be able to say - not just to the families but also the taxpayers - that the information in the system is accurate. I do think we're operating under a higher level of credibility that makes shortcuts unwise.”
The state has asked help from the federal government, which also benefited from the withholding of the support payments.
The state figures it must also forward $7 million improperly intercepted from state income tax refunds of noncustodial parents, usually fathers, who were overdue in their child support. The federal government is expected to repay l $10 million.
“That's the most accurate way to do it, to make sure each family gets the correct amount,” said Geraldine Jensen of Toledo, president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support.
“It's a good use of our tax dollars,” she said. “They wouldn't have had to spend this at all if they had done it the right way to begin with. This is the cost of putting it right.”
The executive order follows through with Mr. Taft's pledge to go back to October, 1997, to identify the families, even though attorneys for the state have argued in court the state is legally obligated to go back only to October, 2000. That's the date Ohio's statewide, automated child support tracking system went fully on line.
Mr. Taft said his order “illustrates Ohio's commitment to go the extra mile in supporting families who have made the transition from welfare to work.”' The complicated game plan revolves around past-due child support payments owed by non-custodial parents to Ohio families before they joined the welfare system.
Whenever payments were made on that overdue amount, the state kept the money to offset its welfare costs, even after the family left the system. Ohio continued to do this after the 1996 federal welfare reform law placed the interest of families emerging from welfare ahead of that of the state.
Rushing to avoid more federal fines for failing to have a statewide, automated child support tracking system in place, the state opted not to stop to reprogram it before it went fully on line.
Mr. Moody said the mistake was a symptom of a department that had allowed technology decisions to override department policy that families had to come first.
The computer continues to intercept the past-due support payments to this day, although the system now reconciles its figures weekly, then forwards the payments to the families. The computer is expected to be reprogrammed to stop the interceptions by the end of next month.
Meanwhile, the state has surrendered $43 million in federal fines for missing deadlines to have the system in place and expects an $8 million fine for not promptly implementing the welfare reform changes.
The hard part for the state has been calculating support payments improperly withheld when counties were still operating their support collection and disbursement systems. In some cases, the old computer systems were turned off when the state system went on line.
Mr. Moody yesterday said the state will cover the counties' costs but admitted that, in some cases, the audits will be time-consuming and require experienced, knowledgeable staff.
The Lucas County Child Support Agency has estimated that it could cost $116,000 to extract old computer data on about 12,000 former welfare recipients who may or may not be owed money.
“The money [from the state] is the clearest way to say this is not a county mistake,'' said Mr. Moody. “This is a state mistake. To the extent possible, we don't want to harm counties for the additional resources it's going to take to correct it.”
The department's new director, former Cuyahoga County Administrator Tom Hayes, will start work on Sept. 4 and be charged with implementing the plan.