DSS Flush with Reserve Funds in Recent Years amid Caseworker Shortages

July 24, 2014

Investigative Reports

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CryingAt a Senate panel hearing Wednesday, the S.C. Department of Social Services’ deputy director said it would cost $10 million to hire 202 staffers to reduce child-welfare caseloads statewide that have received heightened attention with recent child deaths.

But DSS in recent years has accumulated millions of dollars in reserves, The Nerve found in a review of state budget records, raising questions about why money wasn’t spent earlier to hire more caseworkers and if the agency needs to wait until next year to ask lawmakers for more funds.

Records at the Office of State Budget (OSB) show that the agency routinely carries over millions every year in “other” funds. The agency carried over $17.61 million, $32 million and $17.49 million in other funds into fiscal years 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively, according to OSB’s annual detail base budgets, commonly referred to as “the brick” because of its massive size.

Those records show millions of other fund revenues have been collected annually under numerous categories, including, for example, categories labeled “General Operating Contribution,” “Misc Transfer – Other Funds,” “Misc Revenue,” “Alloc From Counties,” and “Allocation From St Agencies.”

In addition, DSS carried over nearly $4.8 million in general funds into the start of last fiscal year – a huge jump compared to the $400,832 carried over into fiscal 2013, according to records at the state Comptroller General’s Office.

At Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate’s DSS Oversight Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, Jessica Hanak-Coulter, the DSS deputy director, said the starting salary for a child-welfare caseworker is $31,000, The State newspaper reported.

Based on that salary, the department could hire about 155 caseworkers assuming it could tap general fund reserves of $4.8 million, The Nerve’s review found. Close to 550 caseworkers could be hired at that salary if the agency had at least $17 million available in other fund reserves.

The Nerve this morning sent written questions to DSS spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus asking if agency reserves could have been tapped in recent past years to deal with the caseworker shortage, and whether those reserves could be used immediately. No response was received by publication of this story.

The Nerve is attempting to get the department’s most recent reserve figures from OSB and the Comptroller General’s Office. The current fiscal year started July 1.

(After this story was published, Scott Hawkins, spokesman for the S.C. Budget and Control Board, told The Nerve that DSS carried over $21.9 million in other funds into last fiscal year. He said he couldn’t provide the carryover amount into this fiscal year until the financial books for fiscal 2014 are closed.)

Eric Ward, spokesman for Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, said in a written response this morning that the amount of general funds carried over by DSS into this fiscal year was not immediately available, noting, “DSS is still recording transactions in fiscal 2014, and the agency’s carry-forward amount, if any, is based on a calculation that they (Ecktrom’s accounting staff) cannot do because they don’t have complete information to perform the calculation.”

The Nerve previously has scrutinized DSS’ budgeting practices. The Nerve, for example, first reported in March 2013 that DSS was transferring $1.5 billion in federal food-stamp assistance payments to an “unbudgeted account,” thereby reducing the agency’s total listed budget. In fiscal year 2013, the agency’s total ratified budget was nearly $2.14 billion, including federal funds for food stamps, but its total budget for this fiscal year is listed at about $658.5 million, state budget records show.

The Nerve reported earlier this month, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture records, that food stamp use in South Carolina has skyrocketed in recent years.

Former DSS Director Lillian Koller, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley in 2011, resigned on June 2 after several months of hearings by the Senate panel into reports of high child-welfare worker caseloads and child-death cases with DSS involvement. Two Richland County child deaths have drawn particular attention:  the July 2013 beating death of a 4-year-old autistic boy in his home; and the April death of a 5-month-old infant with a serious breathing condition, who died in the back seat of his mother’s car parked at a store, authorities said.

A House resolution calling for the resignation or firing of Koller, sponsored by Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, and co-sponsored by 11 other Democratic House members, was introduced on May 27, though it didn’t make it out of committee.

Hanak-Coulter during Wednesday’s Senate panel hearing said hiring the additional 202 staffers is needed to lower per-worker caseloads to no more than 24 children, according to media reports. The agency has about 800 front-line caseworkers and has filled 59 open positions since June, The State newspaper reported.

In November 2010, DSS announced that it would end its Child Protective Services and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs if it were not allowed to operate with a $28.8 million deficit. The S.C. Budget and Control Board, chaired by Haley, was scheduled to act on the request at its February 2011 meeting, but the day before the meeting, DSS withdrew its request, reporting that it had identified additional savings to avoid a deficit.

A May 2011 audit by the Legislative Audit Council – the investigative arm of the General Assembly – found that “both executive management and staff analyzing the agency’s budget in 2010 did not accurately forecast expenditures or include all expenses that could be eliminated.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.