DOBSON — The nation’s economic downturn has placed a burden on one government agency in the county, and officials say they are nearly out of options.
According to Wayne Black, director of the county’s Department of Social Services, his office has seen an unprecedented increase in casework, but no more money to handle the additional load.
And he said there isn’t anything he can do about the predicament.
“My problem is that for the most part, the programs we operate are either entitlement programs like Medicaid and food stamps, and we have to do them,” he said. “But there isn’t any mandated money to help administer them.”
Black said the number of county residents receiving food stamps has increased by 30 percent over the past three years, while the number of families receiving Medicaid has increased by more than five percent.
“The biggest part of our budget is taken up with staffing the mandated public assistance programs,” he said. “And we have about 50 percent of our staff handling those programs.”
Last year, the department’s $129 million budget was funded by the federal government ($94.3 million, or about 73 percent of the budget), the state ($31.1 million, or 24 percent of the budget), and the county ($3.5 million, or 2.6 percent).
And Black said he can’t approach the county for more funding because the county is struggling itself.
“I could have plenty of staff to handle the increased load if the county matched the federal dollars, but for the past two years, the county dollars have been shrinking,” Black said. “That means keeping the same number of staff or less, due to funding.”
The increased caseload is the result of federal mandates and relaxed regulations related to who qualifies for the entitlements, according to the department head.
Black said that three years ago, then-Gov. Beverly Perdue decided to expand food stamp eligibility by increasing the amount of money a household could make and still qualify. Guidelines to be eligible to receive the benefits increased from 130 percent of the federal poverty level to 200 percent of the poverty level — meaning more county families qualify.
“That means more applicants, and more cases for food stamps,” Black said. “Where do I get the staff to administer it? It’s funded by both the feds and county, and we haven’t received the money to pay additional staff. The federal government mandates, or the state decides to expand these programs and we’re stuck with trying to find the money to administer and staff it.”
One saving grace that has, up to this point, kept the department’s head above water is a new state-mandated $500,000 document management system that has helped reduce the staff required to administer federally-mandated entitlements.
“There’s no way we could have kept up with the demand for services without that,” he said. “It has at least allowed us to get the benefits out in a timely manner.”
But Black said he’s cut about as tightly as he can, and worries about further troubles.
“We’re basically at the end of our rope in terms of what we can handle,” he said. “And that’s with us working at least one Saturday a month for a full day to handle the caseload.”
Black said his staff is working Saturdays without pay, but being compensated by building up time off.
“The bottom line is the federal government wants to mandate these programs, the state operates them and the county has to administer them, but the county doesn’t have any say in how we operate the programs,” he said. “There is nothing my department is doing that isn’t a federal mandate.”
And with the county facing belt-tightening itself, Black said there is no way they can provide additional funding at this juncture.
“The county is broke, too,” he said. “I’m only going to be asking for money to keep us doing what we’re doing now.”
More trouble on horizon?
Black said the looming battle in Washington over sequestration has him worried.
Sequestration, formerly known as the “fiscal cliff,” is a term referring to a series of automatic cuts to the tune of $1.2 trillion over 10 years, that were scheduled to take place on Dec. 31, 2012, but on New Year’s Day, Congress delayed the action for two months.
Now there is a March 1 deadline for the cuts, and Black is worried that inaction in Washington will affect the federal dollars his department receives.
“The concern on my part is that with sequestration and budget cuts in Washington, we could lose a large percentage of federal dollars,” he said. “And I don’t know what I’d do if that came to pass.
“We’re maxed out across the board,” Black added. “We’ve done just about everything we have control over that we can do.”
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.