DSS asking county for new positions, technology

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Kathy Chaffin
The Rowan County Department of Social Services is asking for seven new positions ó five of them temporary ó and an electronic document and forms management system in its 2009-2010 budget request to county commissioners.
The Board of Social Services approved the budget request by a unanimous vote at its March meeting Tuesday night.
Social Services Director Sandra Wilkes listed the positions on her expansion budget request in order of priority. The first three are actually continuations of temporary caseworkers approved by commissioners at their Feb. 2 meeting to handle an increase in applications for Food and Nutrition Services, formerly known as the food stamp program, and Family/Children’s Medicaid.
Wilkes said in her written justification for the Food and Nutrition Services temporary caseworkers that applications for the benefits increased by 24 percent from July 2008 through January 2009. There was a 15 percent increase in caseload size during that same seven-month period.
While the number of applications is historically low in February due to families receiving income tax refunds, she said there were 762 applications in February of 2009, as compared to 504 applications in February 2008 and 474 applications in February 2007.
Wilkes told board members it appears the recession will continue into the fiscal year beginning July 1, extending the need for the temporary positions.
“Growth in this program will continue until the economy improves,” she wrote in the justification. “Growth is projected to escalate with implementation of the federal stimulus plan, which relaxes eligibility criteria and raises benefit levels, making more families eligible and providing them with higher benefits.
“The state food assistance consultant advises there will be up to a 20 percent increase in applications and in the number of active cases.”
Because the temporaries are only allowed to work 1,000 hours according to U.S. Department of Labor regulations, she said the department may have to hire another crew to assist with the increased workload. Hiring temporary vs. permanent employees saves the county money because the department does not have to pay benefits, she said.
When commissioners first approved the three temporary positions, Wilkes said the department received more than 50 applications, more than they received for a similar permanent position. “People were looking for temporary work,” she said, “so I don’t think we will have a difficult time filling these positions.”
Chairman Carl Ford asked if Wilkes could fill the second crew of caseworkers in the budget request from the pool of original applicants.
Wilkes said yes. “We had excellent applicants for the temporary caseworker positions,” she said.
The projected cost of the two temporary Food and Nutrition Services caseworker positions is $14,573 apiece or $29,146 for both positions. The cost of the temporary Family/Children’s Medicaid caseworker position is $16,728.
Applications for Family/Children’s Medicaid increased by 13.3 percent from July 2008 through January 2009, while the caseload size increased by 7 percent.
There were 1,166 applications and 9,890 cases in February 2009 as compared to 1,017 applications and 9,665 bases in February 2008.
The department’s budget request also includes two temporary Child Protective Services investigators. Wilkes said staff are currently unable to keep their caseloads down to the state standard of 12 open cases because of the extensive work needed on each case and the assignment of new reports they must investigate.
Of the 11 experienced investigators, nine have caseloads in excess of 12. Caseload sizes for six of them are more than double the state standard, with the highest being 40.
“This is just not acceptable when you’re working with high-risk situations,” she said.
The projected cost of the two temporary investigator positions, fourth and fifth on the priority list, is $23,740 apiece or $47,480 for both.
The department is also requesting a full-time office assistant III position for Medicaid and an office assistant III position for Children’s Services. This employee would work with Child Protective Services 50 percent of the time and Foster Care/Adoption 50 percent of the time.
The projected annual cost for each of the two positions, ranked sixth and seventh in priority, is $36,541.
The budget request also includes $456,670 for an electronic document and forms management system. Of this amount, $149,292 is projected to be reimbursed by the state and federal governments, leaving $307,378 in county costs.
Wilkes said the projected county cost should be lower because Rowan already has a Laserfiche program and should be able to purchase computers at a lower cost than the estimates included by Northwoods Consulting Partners, which would install and maintain the system.
“It seems like so much money,” she said, “but in the long run, it is going to pay for itself because it will reduce the need for additional staff. … A caseworker would be able to manage many more cases if those cases were managed electronically rather than with hard copies.”
Board member and former county commissioner Jim Sides said it’s important to stress to commissioners how important the system would be in the long run.
“I certainly hope that there is some way that the county can see fit to make sure this goes through,” he said. “This is critical.”
DSS board Vice Chairman Carl Ford, who is chairman of the board of county commissioners, said the work it would save employees needs to be considered.
Sides added, “It’s going to be a win-win situation if we can get this through.”
According to the justification submitted with the budget request, purchasing the system would allow the department to:
– Scan and index client information, eliminate hard copies of files and documents, eliminate the need for file room and off-site storage;
– Reduce caseworker time spent on individual cases by up to 50 percent;
– Enable multiple staff to view client information simultaneously;
– Enable caseworkers to manage more cases in less time;
– Reduce the need for new staff positions;
– Reduce needs and costs related to paper, printing, file cabinets.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.