The Troubles of Merging Ohio and Family Services

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Ohio combined two state departments last year to be more efficient. But the merger of the Bureau of Employment Services and the Department of Human Services has been wracked by scandal, poor decision-making, and partisan politics.

Governor Bob Taft still supports his decision to combine the departments, despite the bad publicity. In our latest installment in the WKSU series "New Work New Families: America's Juggling Act," WKSU's Julie Grant looks at the trials and tribulations of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services...

The Director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services last fall said the state had no plans to close any of its employment offices. Governor Taft's proposed state budget for the next two years would eliminate 56 local employment offices. The move is expected to save ten million dollars. Taft spokesperson Kevin Kellems says all jobless services will be available via telephone...

Kellems: This is a very tight budget. It's the tightest budget in a decade. Now, in the instance of the employment service, there is a strong desire of most of the customers of those offices to be able to do that over the phone or over the computer. The change is one to improve service and increase efficiency.
But the Republicans' proposal isn't sitting well with many statehouse Democrats...or people who need unemployment services...

At the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services office in Ravenna, a few people wait in the rows of chairs. One ex-marine, who asked that his name not be used, was fired from his manufacturing job just this morning. The 22-year-old says he's glad he got to speak with someone face-to-face about scheduling an appointment with an employment counselor...

Ex-Marine: Someone like me, if I had to talk on the telephone for a damn eight hours after what happened--I'd get pretty frustrated. It would seem like nothing is going on. But if I come in here, I go to this person and say I want to make an appointment and that person says 'okay, go here, do this.'
Most clients at the Ravenna unemployment office agree with him and say that they would rather talk with someone face-to-face than on the telephone. The office manager says the state web page for job-matching services is currently off-line and more than half of their clientele is already choosing to register on the phone.

State Senator Leigh Herington of Ravenna says that's much too impersonal--and many clients need face-to-face guidance. He recently held a news conference on the front lawn of the unemployment center in Ravenna.

Herington: Job seekers and employers deserve services. We should not be closing these employment offices and I urge you all to get to the governor and get to the members of the legislature who will be dealing with this budget, and tell them that it is not acceptable for us to close these local offices.
Herington says the ten million dollar savings could easily be made up elsewhere in the budget. The governor's spokesperson says democrats like Herington are playing politics. But this is just one example of how the newly created Ohio Department of Job and Family Services has gotten caught up in politics. The recently resigned director, Jacqui Romer-Sensky, and the former director of the Human Services Department, Arnold Tompkins, are both under investigation for approving 37 million dollars worth of unbid contracts. The state inspector-general is also looking into the agency's improper handling of child-support payments. Melanie Snider is Executive Director of the child support group suing Ohio. Before welfare reform, she explains families that wanted a welfare check had to forfeit child support payments to the state. As part of reforms, the federal government ordered states to change such policies and computer systems that enforced them...and give families both checks or face millions of dollars in penalties.
Snider: Ohio decided it was more prudent for them to go ahead and put the computer system in and not make the changes, take the money and someday figure out how much money they owe the families and give it back and save themselves the federal penalties. They just never got around to giving the money back to the families. They are still doing it. They are still taking the money from the poorest of families.
Job and Family Services Director Jacqui Romer-Sensky, who resigned last week, admitted that Ohio has intentionally and improperly withheld as much as 10 million dollars in child support to families on welfare. Snider works with child support agencies nationwide. She says Ohio decided to withhold the money before the Unemployment and Family Services departments were combined last year, so she doesn't blame the state's problem with the merger. But...
Snider: We have never seen an improvement come out of bigger government, when you make a big conglomeration like California, they decided to switch the child support system out of the district attorney's office, who had traditionally taken care of about 29 different programs. They created a department specifically for child support. This is more of a step in the opposite direction and it seems to be working very well. That's more of the idea that we would support.
The Job and Family Services department accounts for about one-fourth of all state spending--it's budget is about 10-and-a-half billion dollars. It employs 4,000 workers. Governor Taft has taken full responsibility for the agency's problems but still supports the merger.
Taft: I think that the merger had the right idea because we had tremendous duplication in our workforce development, in our training, in the whole welfare to work, really. Welfare was becoming work training as much as anything else--really the same role that the Ohio Developmental Services was playing. We had 2 different systems and I think we are going to see a lot of opportunities to achieve--to improve the services and some savings overall, over a period of time. But it's going to take time for this merger.
It's been eight months since the merger. Taft says it will take a year or two to see the benefits. Senator Herington used to believe the merger would eventually bear fruit, but he's changed his mind.
Herington: But at the time, we were told that there were going to be economies--this was good government. But from what I understand is that there are employment specialists in OBES and in Human Services. They haven't even combined these duties. If they would have combined these duties and had the same people dealing with the human services development--those people that were on welfare with those people on unemployment--we could have had economies. Now, we are still running dual systems here. The accounting system is a dual system so they haven't done what we thought they were going to do. So now, they are going to take a way the service that was really important.
The legislature is debating the state budget, including whether to continue funding local employment offices. Governor Taft had appointed to well-respected leaders to take over the troubled Job and Family Services Department. Neither former House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson nor James Conrad, Administrator of the Bureau of Workers Compensation was available for comment for this story.

I'm Julie Grant, WKSU.

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