Friday, August 10, 2001

Ohio counties face huge chore to return child-support money

By Liz Sidoti
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — It will take tons of overtime, hundreds of workers and lots of patience for counties to figure out exactly who is owed the $38 million in child-support payments and state income tax refunds the state improperly withheld.

        “I'm happy that families are going to get money that they haven't gotten, but the fact of the matter is, it does create quite a burden on the agency,” said Robert McDonald, director of Stark County's Child Support Enforcement Agency.

        Ohio withheld tax refunds and overdue child-support payments that were supposed to go to former welfare recipients. The money was used to reimburse the state and federal governments for public assistance used.

        A 1996 federal welfare reform law outlawed the practice, but the department continued to withhold the money.

        Gov. Bob Taft said Wednesday that the state will pay back money it withheld between Oct. 1, 1997, and Sept. 30, 2000, even though federal law requires Ohio to refund money withheld only from Oct. 1, 2000, to the present.

        “I'm somewhat disappointed in the decision to go back so many years, but it's the right thing to do, absolutely,” said Ginny McVey, director of Washington County's Child Support Enforcement Agency. “People who are owed money are angry, and I understand they're angry. But I'm as frustrated as they are.”

        Mr. Taft ordered all 88 county child support enforcement agencies to review up to 165,000 cases to determine which families are owed money. That process is expected to cost $18 million. It could take nearly two years for all the reviews to be completed and all checks distributed.

        For months, counties have waited to hear from Mr. Taft about whether they would be required to audit cases back to 1997. Now that the decision has been made, counties find themselves continuing to wait — this time for the state to give them a plan outlining exactly what needs to be done and when.

        “It has been extremely frustrating to not know from one day to the next what the final decision was going to be,” said Loretta Adams, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors' Association.

        Now that the decision has been made to move ahead, “the overall feeling is that everyone is really overwhelmed. This is a tremendous effort that the counties will have to undertake,” said Kimberly Newsom, executive director of the Ohio Child Support Enforcement Agency Directors Association.

        The state will work with counties over the next few months to find a way to make the reviews as easy as possible, said Greg Moody, the interim director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

        Before federal law required all counties to be hooked up to one automated child support system by Oct. 1, 2000, each had its own way of keeping track of cases.

        Some counties kept paper records — index cards in shoe boxes or folders in file cabinets — while others had computerized systems.

        No matter what kind of record-keeping systems they had, “they're all going to be in the same boat,” because each case will have to be reviewed individually, Ms. Newsom said.

        Counties expect to ask workers to review cases mainly on overtime — nights and weekends — so their current cases and county services don't suffer.

        The state has said it would reimburse counties for administrative expenses.


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