County still behind on food-stamp applications

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199 applicants enduring waiting beyond 30-day deadline

By AJ Vicens

Nearly 200 Jeffco families awaiting food assistance have endured waits between 35 and 40 days — five to 10 days longer than federal law allows.

A food stamp application must be processed within 30 days — or within seven, if the case is classified as “expedited,” according to federal law. But 199 families who have applied for food assistance through Jeffco’s Department of Human Services’ community assistance division have waited longer than 30 days. Additionally, nine families whose cases were “expedited” — requiring their applications to be processed within seven days — have seen the deadline come and go, and are still waiting for food vouchers.

Lynnae Flora, the community assistance division’s acting director, said the missed deadlines are decreasing as employees work more overtime and division management enforces stricter standards.

“At the beginning of March, there were 316 applications past 30 days,” Flora said. “As of (March 13), we had 210. What we’re trying to do is whittle that down to nothing.”

Jeffco made headlines last month when it was revealed that the county led the state with nearly 60 percent of applications not processed on time. 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. Federal law requires the county and the state to process 90 percent of applications within 30 days, 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. Flora said that although Jeffco was the worst in the state in terms of timely processing, the county is now sixth worst.

Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services, said the federal government probably wouldn’t fine Colorado for the delays, taking into account the surge in demand for food assistance nationwide.

Flora points to a combination of factors that contributed to the delays: surges in demand for food assistance; lack of proper training and follow-through with community assistance division employees; and a lack of stability in management, as the division has seen three directors in the last year.

Wanda Cowart, the community assistance division’s program manager, said there were 1,436 food assistance applications between Jan. 1, 2008, and March 31, 2008. Between Jan. 1, 2009, and March 19, 2009, there have been 2,743.

“We are on track for being more than double than we were at this time last year,” Flora said. “And that’s a number we don’t control.”

But, Flora said, the numbers represent very real human need.

“If we can get all of these applications processed timely — that’s what’s most important for our customers,” Flora said.

The division has raised the qualifications for new hires, she added, and will use the department’s workforce training center to train employees on the division’s computer system starting at the beginning of April.

It takes five to six months for a person to be fully trained in the computer system that manages food-assistance cases, Flora said, and the division has started to create a pool of “pre-vacancy” employees who will go through the training. When an employee leaves the community assistance division, one of the pre-trained employees can join the team and hit the ground running.

“In the past, they were sort of plugging the dike, and probably throwing (employees) out there before they were ready,” Flora said.

She also said that employees have been divided put into teams, and each team is given a weekly goal, with managers monitoring progress more vigorously.

Flora said another “bump in the road” could come with federal economic-stimulus dollars. Part of the stimulus package will give more aid to food-assistance applicants, Flora said. Food assistance applicants are recertified every six months in a fairly automated process, Flora said, but the added assistance will require workers to do more manually.

“It’s a combination of where you have the stimulus, which is a good thing, but (the extra money) may create some administrative headaches. We’re going forward knowing we’re going to get another bump in the road.”

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