Approval likely for expansion of Wake social services staff
Posted February 6
Raleigh, N.C. — Wake County leaders will likely green-light a plan later this month to add staff to the county's social services division, which has struggled for months under a backlog of food stamp cases.
At its meeting on Feb. 17, the Board of Commissioners will hear a proposal to expand the Wake County Department of Human Services to deal with increased demand for benefits. Board Chairman Phil Matthews said that, after hearing more details about food stamp problems in January, he expects commissioners will approve the plan to add both temporary and permanent human services personnel.
"We're going to support their efforts because it's the right thing to do, and secondly, we don't have any choice in the matter," Matthews said this week.
For months, county case managers across the state have worked under a mounting logjam of food stamp cases that left thousands of families waiting for benefits – sometimes for four months or more. In Wake County, the share has consistently been larger than any other county, including the much more populous Mecklenburg County.
Wake County Assistant Human Services Director Liz Scott attributed the delays to a number of factors, including complications with the roll-out of the state's new social services enrollment system known as NC FAST.
Chief among the problems, she says, is the increasing demand for social services that has outstripped the capacity of her staff to respond. Scott said that, from 2008 to 2012, annual food stamp cases alone doubled to 40,000 at a time when personnel numbers barely budged.
But last week, the food stamp backlog across North Carolina began to fall dramatically after state and county workers focused all of their attention on meeting a mandate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If the state failed to eliminate the majority of its delayed cases, the federal agency said it might withdraw about $88 million in funding for the administration of the food stamp program.
"I think it really just came to a head this past year, and a lot of heat and attention was brought to it," Matthews said. "Once that happened, that pulled the trigger on the sense of urgency that this isn't going to get better until we jump in there and do something about it."
Wake County is now host to one of 11 state "processing centers" set up to help workers process pending applications. In all, 150 permanent and temporary staffers are working overtime and on weekends alongside 17 state workers to tackle the backlog, most of which must be cleared by next Monday.
Wake County officials have pledged to finish a few days early – by Friday – but Scott warned last week that this temporary push won't last forever.
"We are concerned about the need for more staff, because we want to be able to sustain this and we don't want to get behind again," she said at a news conference Jan. 30.
Matthews said commissioners don't yet know how much the effort to clear applications will cost the county in overtime.
But at a work session on Jan. 13, Scott told commissioners her department would need another $748,000 for temporary workers to help reduce the backlog. As of that meeting, Scott said, the county had spent close to $1.1 million of the $1.8 million it had allocated for NC FAST conversions through the fiscal year ending in June.
Matthews called that presentation a "wake-up call" for commissioners but said the consequences of not meeting the USDA requirement would be far more devastating.
"Getting that, that's the golden ring we're going for. That's going to pay for what we're doing here," he said. "The overtime, that's going to be a bitter pill to swallow."
For now, Matthews said county workers are on track to make their self-imposed Friday deadline.
Data from the state show the county reduced its backlog to 350 cases as of Thursday morning, down from 2,506 cases a week ago.
In an email to staff members Thursday morning, Wake Department of Social Services Director Ramon Rojano said the remaining cases will be the most difficult and that some will require teams to visit food stamp clients at their homes to obtain information missing from the system.
Matthews said that, once the deadline passes, commissioners will focus on how to better equip Wake County's social services agency for more changes in the pipeline for NC FAST, which will eventually be a one-stop shop for clients seeking food stamps, Medicaid and other social services.
"Once this program is up and we get the kinks worked out, it is going to be good for everybody," he said.