Thursday, April 13, 2000

County's videotaped warning




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Those fabulous folks who brought you the Miracle Money-Eating Football Palace are at it again. And, really, this one is a drop in the bucket. Hardly worth mentioning. It's only $151,000. But since those dollars belonged to you, I thought you might be interested anyway.

        Hamilton County produced an 11-minute, 33-second video starring Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus and mailed it to 100,000 residents. The target audience is anybody who either receives or pays child support.

        It's easy to see why the county wants to warn these people. The movie's plot, so to speak, is about a “computer conversion.” (That is nerd-speak for “nightmare.”) It explains a plan by the federal government to “centralize.” (Code for “reduced service” and “red tape.”)

Efficient collectors
        Called Support Enforcement Tracking System (SETS), this is supposed to help nail deadbeat parents who cross county and state lines. Ohio has to get all 88 counties on the new system by October or pay millions of dollars in penalties.

        And everybody knows that the feds might not be too great at service, but they are extremely efficient at collections. We all get a warm reminder of that Monday, when we file our IRS returns.

        For two years, Ohio practiced on its small, rural counties, leaving the more complicated metro counties until now.

        Dayton's Montgomery County was first. Hamilton County, which switched the balance of its 78,000 cases on Friday, is the second conversion. Cleveland's Cuyahoga County, with 80,000 clients, will be next.

        The money involved is huge. Huge. Even by bureaucratic standards.

        Last year, Hamilton County's Department of Human Services collected $141 million in child support. It cost more than $26 million to get the money, then to get it in the right hands. So I suppose it's small-minded to worry about an extra $151,000.

        Mindy Good, the redoubtable spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, says the information is very detailed, and “we just figured people would be more likely to watch a video than read a brochure or a letter.”

        Thank heavens they didn't decide people would be more likely to pay attention if they took them on a cruise to the Bahamas. Or that people would be more inclined to watch a video starring Harrison Ford.

From big to bigger
        I don't know why Mr. Bedinghaus was selected for this star turn. Perhaps Harrison Ford had a previous engagement. Or perhaps Mr. Ford was not running for office.

        The conversion is complicated — involving changes in caseworkers, the potential for late checks, a new number to call for information, changes in case numbers, changes in payroll deductions.

        Worse, it is a change from a big bureaucracy to a bigger one. Think banking, and you get the idea of what might happen to folks who are awaiting the rent money. Or the grocery money.

        So, it was decided written notice of this was not enough. It was decided the parents receiving child support cannot or will not read mail coming from the agency that provides them with monthly checks. It was decided that the parents who make payments to the agency that passes along money to their children might ignore written notice of a change in procedure.

        So the taxpayers of Hamilton County paid for a multimedia presentation. It seems a little patronizing. A little pessimistic.

        And a little wasteful.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call (513) 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.