Thursday, August 12, 2004

Fixing agency large task

State official delays retiring

By Carrie Spencer
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - The man brought in three years ago to right the state's troubled agency for the jobless and needy has led fixes for child support, unemployment and job-matching - but following the latest snafu in a $16 billion budget, Tom Hayes says there's no elegant exit.

"This agency never stops," Hayes said Wednesday. "The train doesn't slow down at the station. You leave when the train's moving."

Hayes already has stayed one year longer than he planned as director of the Department of Job and Family Services.

He delayed a planned retirement to solve an accounting mess in an automated system designed to shift money between various administrative accounts for the 88 county departments. He also wants to help with the next two-year budget, which will be proposed in January and must be complete by July.

"The shelf life of a commissioner is not very long," said Jerry Friedman, executive director of the American Public Human Services Association for welfare agency directors in all 50 states and some cities.

"It's one of the most difficult and challenging jobs in the country."

The Ohio department's budget has been growing by more than $1 billion yearly this decade.

The money that goes to a single client can come from multiple programs, each with separate rules, coordinated with three federal and at least nine other state agencies.

Ohio is considered a leader, Friedman said, pioneering concepts such as "one-stop shopping" offices for people to apply for various forms of aid. It also is unique because of the system lawmakers created in 1997 to pool funds for various sources for the state's 88 counties to cover administrative expenses such as evaluating eligibility.

That, however, is where the latest problem arose. The money available to manage Medicaid and food stamps stayed level while cases increased and welfare cases dropped off. The automated system drew from the administrative account of welfare when the other two ran out.

The state failed to reconcile the various accounts among the counties, Hayes said. The problem was discovered this spring and the state and federal governments are still trying to figure out how much Ohio has to put back in its welfare account. Aid to clients won't be affected.

"There are people in my organization who should have seen this, but this is my responsibility," Hayes said.

Ohio has time to fix the problem, and there doesn't appear to be any fraud or misuse, said Andrew Bush, director of federal Office of Family Assistance.

It's the latest in a series of problems with roots predating Hayes. This year, the federal government declared the state's child-support system in compliance with 1996 federal regulations and reversed a nearly $1 million fine over the former Internet job-matching system that Hayes scrapped three years ago and replaced last November.

Under his tenure, the department has started replacing or replaced six of the seven major computer systems that run programs such as Medicaid and unemployment.

Many county directors feel Hayes hasn't taken their views into account, said Bruce Jewett, president of the Ohio Job and Family Service Directors' Association and head of the Butler County agency.

"He's brought a certain level of stability to the department," Jewett said. "I haven't liked the loss of feeling of partnership with the department we used to have."

He won't say when, but Hayes still wants that retirement. He said either his wife in Cleveland or Gov. Bob Taft will tell him it's time to go.

"I have very capable people who can step in and do this job tomorrow," he said.

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