Kelly Woodward, director of the Madera County Department of Social Services, has sent an 11-page response to a grand jury report that was critical of her department.
The grand jury report, released April 4, pointed out many concerns including the accuracy of food stamp and medical aid eligibility reports, overpayments of cash grants (CalWorks program) and over issuances of food stamps (CalFRESH program). The jury said one of the reasons for the overpayments and over issuances is because staffing of the department's Eligibility Unit is inadequate, both in number of staff and organizational structure, but Woodward, in her response, disagreed.
She said the organizational structure of the eligibility unit is typical of a county welfare department, although her department had been working to increase the number of eligibility workers long before the grand jury report came out.
"A number of factors have contributed to staffing patterns in the eligibility unit including the lingering economic downturn that has resulted in more people seeking and receiving services," Woodward said. "Second, programs formerly administered at the state level have been folded into existing county-administered programs, often without commensurate increases in resources to meet the increased workload. Both of these factors have contributed to growing caseloads for our eligibility workers, whose ranks have remained relatively flat. Meanwhile, budget shortfalls at the county level have resulted in layoffs and furloughs of county staff."
In February 2013, the department received permission to add an additional 16 staff to the eligibility unit.
"Lastly, federal and state authorities are encouraging the department to work to expand participation in the public assistance programs," Woodward said. "Recently, a plan was submitted to increase the number of people in Madera County on food stamps and soon, the eligibility unit will begin engaging inquiries on the Affordable Care Act, further stretching staff and its ability to meet a litany of state mandates."
"Currently, the eligibility unit provides services to over 70,000 residents in Madera County," Woodard explained in her letter. "After health care reform is fully implemented, over half of county residents will look to our department for medical insurance (Medi-Cal) and/or food and cash assistance. State auditors analyze Madera County's performance ... and measure this against challenges found in varying degrees in counties throughout the state ... and in no way infers that the department is mismanaged or remiss in its fundamental mission to administer benefits to ever growing numbers of individuals and families in Madera County."
Woodard also disagrees with the jury that no apparent action to address turnover is in evidence. Woodward said that attracting and retaining eligibility workers is a challenge not unique to Madera County.
"A study which surveyed 23 California county welfare departments, including Madera, indicates the turnover rate for eligibility workers to be 14.8%, with over half leaving for other jobs, promotions, or retirement," Woodward said. "The position requires technical, organizational, and customer service skills that are in demand among higher-paying professions. The department has countered these influences by supporting the growth and development of our eligibility staff. The department does this by encouraging staff to continue their formal educations, offering regular leadership meetings and training, and preparing staff to compete for promotions."
The grand jury report said wages for eligibility workers in Madera County are non-competitive with neighboring counties, contributing to the exceedingly high turnover rate, but Woodward does not believe the turnover rate is any different than surrounding counties and wages paid to beginning eligibility workers ($2,232 a month) are not much different than four surrounding counties.
In response to the jury's conclusion that the department's eligibility worker's moral is lower than that of the other department employees due to a lack of top management support and lack of internal promotional, Woodward believes top management stays engaged with staff in number of ways, including lunch meetings and regular leadership meetings designed to prepare staff for leadership positions
"The department also holds quarterly all-staff meetings which recognize staff for outstanding efforts and accomplishments.
"We acknowledge we are behind processing client's income verification -- it takes time and due to the increase in clients nets, we have gotten behind," Woodward said. "Our department's priority is to make sure people receive the benefits they are eligible for and, yes, due to that, we have gotten behind on paper work. But the department is working diligently to get caught up."
The grand jury report pointed out that the county has an ending balance of cash grant overpayments of $2.8 million and a food stamp overpayment of $1.58 million for the quarter ending September 2012.
Woodward said the county collects grant overpayments at a rate slightly below the state average.
"Overpayments on active cases are typically collected through grant reductions ... cases of suspected fraud are referred to the district attorney's Special Investigations Units for investigation," Woodward said. "SIU determines if a case for fraud exists. If so, the DA can decide to pursue criminal charges in Superior Court and/or assess penalties, disqualifications from aid, and impose more aggressive repayment terms in lieu of prosecution. In either case, the department collects repayments as per the agreement executed by the DA/SIU.
"The Department of Social Services would like to thank the grand jury for providing accountability and transparency to local government," Woodard concluded in her response. " We look forward to continuing to work with the county team to make Madera County a great place to work and live."
Dated May 3, the letter was sent to D. Lynn Jones, presiding judge of the Madera County Superior Court, with copies sent to the grand jury, Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz, the county board of supervisors and Eric Fleming, Madera County chief administrative officer.