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County chipping away at food-stamp backlog

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By AJ Vicens

Nearly four months after Jefferson County's food assistance program led the state in backlogged applications, the county has reduced the log jam substantially.

Some 96 applications are now lagging beyond the federally mandated 30-day limit for processing, down from 316 at the beginning of March. Lynnae Flora, the community assistance division's acting director, said the actual number is 56, because 40 of the applications are overdue because applicants haven't submitted all the necessary paperwork.

"There's this feeling that we are getting this done," Flora said June 5.

At the beginning of March, 316 families had to wait more than 30 days for food-stamp applications to be processed. That number fell to 219 by March 16, 199 by March 31 and 177 by April 17.

Federal law requires that 90 percent of applications be processed within 30 days. In mid-February, it was revealed that 60 percent of Jeffco applications were not processed on time. As of April, that had dropped to 23 percent.

Lynn Johnson, director of the Human Services Department, told the county commissioners Feb. 24 that the county was afoul of federal law and was a major contributor to the state’s on-time processing rate of just 74 percent. The state also has to have an overall compliance rate of 90 percent or face fines.

“The counties with the lowest performance will be expected to carry a substantial portion of the burden,” Johnson told the commissioners in a Feb. 24 memo.

"We've implemented a lot of different things," said Wanda Cowart, program manager for the food assistance division. Food assistance division workers were split into teams and given weekly goals to catch up on the backlog, and many of them worked significant overtime, Cowart said. The division also made us of $91,000 in federal stimulus dollars.

"Each county determined how they would spend the money," Cowart said. "We chose to use a large portion of ours to do overtime."

Flora said the problem that created the backlog was partially preventable.

"The issue is about good management," Flora said. "It's not so much the people on the ground doing the job, but the (management) has to look at how overall we're structured, and ask, 'What are we doing to make sure employees have everything they need to be successful?' "

Cowart noted that applications for food assistance have nearly doubled.

"There's been a big increase in requests for services," Cowart said. "That forced us to restructure to accommodate the requests that were coming in."

"It's overwhelming when your numbers double," Flora said. "We're still on track to be more than double (the applications) we had last year. It's a factor, and it's out there, and we're handling it."

Both women acknowledged that the numbers they discuss aren't merely statistics on a spreadsheet. They represent actual families, many with children, that need help as quickly as possible.

"It's real for us," Flora said. "It's real."

The average wait for an appointment is at least two weeks, Cowart said.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.