Federal fines on a state child support enforcement system decades overdue could total almost $200 million if the system is not running in 2019.
That’s the estimate a state Department of Social Services official gave to the Senate DSS Oversight Committee Thursday as senators pressed DSS to accelerate the project, which has been in the works since the early 1990s.
“They built the internet in 14 years. They built the Great Wall of China in 20 years,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington County Republican. “We can do better than this.”
Also Thursday, DSS Director Susan Alford told the committee that the agency has made progress in lowering caseloads for caseworkers in Anderson County, a month after officials said one worker there was handling 119 children, the most in the state.
DSS is hiring more caseworkers for Anderson County and has used workers from neighboring counties as it continues to work on a more even distribution of caseloads, she said. Currently, 11 workers in Anderson County have caseloads of 50 or more children each, she said, and none have 100 or more.
Statewide, 58 workers have such caseloads, down from 134 last year, Alford said. The agency’s goal is a maximum of 24 children per caseworker.
The child support enforcement system project has been the source of frustration for legislators for many years.
South Carolina remains the only state not to have an automated child support enforcement system up and running in response to a 1988 federal law.
The project has thus far incurred $134 million in federal fines, though previous vendors have paid about half of that, said Jimmy Early, who has been overseeing the project for DSS for the past year.
Early said DSS estimates the state will incur another $63 million in fines by the time the project is up and running, now planned in the 2019 fiscal year.
Last year, officials decided to abandon developing a system from scratch and entered into a contract with Xerox to copy the system used in Delaware, which is also used in some other states.
The cost of using that system is $137.5 million, though most of that will be paid for with federal funding.
Early said between Xerox and the state, about 150 people will be working on the project at its peak. The system will provide an automated and centralized system for handling child support enforcement instead of counties doing it on their own.
He said the system includes financial accounting and court management components and must integrate with other government agencies.
“They are just big, complex systems,” Early told the panel.
But Sen. Tom Young, the panel’s chairman, and Shealy said they want to see what can be done to speed up the completion date so fines can be cut.
“You’ve inherited an unbelievable mess,” he told Early. “It’s just been a comedy of errors. It’s impossible to explain to the public."
Early said officials expect the project to take three more years to develop and a year to implement statewide. That time estimate, Shealy said “doesn’t make me happy.”
“I think we can go faster than three years,” she said, promising to stay on the agency until the project is finished.
For every year the project is not certified as up and running by the federal government, the state incurs between $10 and $19 million in fines, Early said. The fines are actually federal monies due the agency that are withheld. The agency expects fines of $13 million this year, Early said.
Last year, officials announced that Hewlett-Packard Corp., the previous vendor on the project, had agreed to pay the state $44 million and the state had agreed to pay HP $5 million to settle a contract dispute. The state terminated its contract with HP in 2014 and each side blamed the other for delays. The dispute wound up before a state procurement officer in trial-like hearings that lasted for months before the two sides agreed to mediation.
HP was the third vendor on the project. Early said the state will use some of the hardware and work product developed by HP.
The system also will make participation easier for businesses with employees paying child support and allow the state to connect faster and easier with authorities in other states when searching for parents who owe child support, they said.