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Friday, September 29th, 2006

Counties may have to pay federal penalty

By Timothy Cox
Mercer County Commissioners were warned Thursday that the county could end up having to pay a federal penalty due to the high error rate in food stamp cases across Ohio.
The news came despite the fact that Mercer County annually ranks among the top counties statewide for maintaining low error rates, county Department of Job and Family Services (DJFS) Director Dale Borger said.
An e-mail from the DJFS Directors Association to all 88 county DJFS directors warned of plans to penalize county offices for financial mistakes. Errors can occur due to clerical miscues by case workers or through fraud by food stamp clients, Borger said.
Ohio reportedly has exceeded the 6 percent error threshold set by the federal government the past two years.
Mercer County currently has an error rate of 0.93 percent, among the best in the state. Auglaize County has an error rate of 6.75 percent. Auglaize County DJFS Director Mike Morrow was not available for comment this morning.
"Ohio Department of Job and Family Services intends to hold each county liable financially for their share of the overall statewide error penalty," the e-mail from Loretta Adams said. "The final decision by ODJFS will impact county general funds in the future."
That means any monetary penalty would have to be paid from local tax coffers, not the state and federal money that largely runs the local DJFS office.
The situation still is developing and there are no firm answers at this point, Borger told commissioners. He speculated that any penalties would "far exceed" the actual cash amount of the errors.
Borger urged commissioners to contact the County Commissioners Association of Ohio. That group likely is formulating a plan to deal with the issue, he said.
The error rates are based on the amount of money lost to mistakes. That means Mercer County's 0.93 percent rate equals 93 cents out of every $100 paid out for food stamps was erroneous. Only a small fraction of total cases are reviewed to detect errors, Borger said. The findings are then multiplied to cover the entire caseload.
Rates in four of Ohio's largest counties all exceeded the 6 percent error level. Those included Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton and Lucas counties. Stark County has the highest error rate at 13.77 percent.
In the West Central Ohio region, Van Wert has a rate of 1.45 percent and Darke County had an error rate of 0 percent in the 24 cases sampled by the state.
Local officials likely will learn more about the situation after the federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1, Borger said.
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