Child Support negotiations continue

Published 8:52 am Thursday, March 4, 2010

WINTON – Hertford County is close to striking a deal that will privatize Child Support Enforcement.

County Manager Loria Williams was scheduled to meet on Wednesday with representatives of the Young-Williams (no relation to Ms. Williams) company. That meeting was slated to take place in Windsor where Bertie County government officials were also scheduled to attend.

Hertford, Bertie, Gates, Chowan and possibly Perquimans County will possibly form a regional consortium and each hire Young-Williams to provide Child Support Enforcement services. Each county will have a separate contract.

Effective July 1, all counties in North Carolina face the task of handling Child Support Enforcement. Currently, the state picks-up the tab for the operation of 17 Child Support agencies that serve 28 counties throughout North Carolina as well as the Cherokee Reservation. Three local counties are in that mix – Bertie, Gates and Hertford.

The child support cases in Bertie and Herford counties are currently handled by a state-paid staff that operates out of an office in Ahoskie. Gates County is served by the Albemarle Child Support office (one that also covers Camden, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties) in Elizabeth City.

Without state money fueling those programs, local government officials were sent scrambling to find a way to continue this mandated public service. The state opted to ax the funds that supported the program in 28 counties in an effort to reduce its overall budget.

At Monday’s Hertford County Board of Commissioners meeting, Williams was given the authority to hammer out the final details of the contract with Young-Williams.

“Our county attorney has reviewed the contract and feels comfortable with Young-Williams being able to provide this service,” Williams told the board.

Based on the preliminary figures provided to the county by the company, the bottom line price to Hertford County is $83,000 annually. Considering that Young-Williams is asking for up to $180 per case (with over 4,300 Child Support cases in Hertford County last year alone), the cost to operate the service is much higher, but the county receives state and federal incentives to help operate the program. However, if Hertford County opted to handle this service in-house, perhaps through its DSS office, the projected annual cost is $183,000.

There was some concern among the commissioners as to accountability.

“Who will monitor this company to ensure they are meeting the needs of our citizens,” asked Commission Chairman Johnnie Ray Farmer.

Williams answered there are performance audits and benchmarks required by the state and federal governments.

“Put as much teeth into this contract that you can; let them know that this board of commissioners is watching them very closely,” Commissioner DuPont Davis stated.

Commissioner Curtis Freeman inquired about the length of the contact, to which Williams said the plan was to offer the company three, one-year deals. The contract does carry a 60-day termination notice.

“If we decide to terminate the contract, we have to first have a plan in place on how we’ll provide this state-mandated service,” Williams noted.

As far as what course of action Young-Williams will take on the existing building and staff at the Child Support Enforcement office in Ahoskie (one that serves both Bertie and Hertford counties), Williams said those negotiations have yet to be finalized.

“I feel 90-to-95 percent certain that the existing staff at the Ahoskie office will be retained once Young-Williams takes over,” she said. “There is some concern about the salaries of those existing employees who are currently paid by the state.”

Williams said the office will remain in Ahoskie, but was unsure if it would be at its current location or if the county would be obligated, by contract, to provide any funds for the upkeep of that office.

Chuck Revelle, who serves as legal council to the board, reminded the commissioners that the wording of the contract does not guarantee that Young-Williams is required to keep the existing office staff.

“I would still like to see that happen; the current staff has done a good job,” Commissioner Curtis Freeman said.

Commissioner Howard Hunter III motioned to give Williams the green light to move forward in the negotiations, further stipulating that the agreement be no higher than $180 per case. The motion was approved without objection.

Young-Williams (based in Jackson, Mississippi) currently provides child support services in New Hanover, Beaufort and Lenoir counties.