The following is a copy of an article that is published in the Jan. 2, 2007, Tomahawk Leader.
County department head constructs own analysis of child support issue
Refutes article by Tomahawk Leader
By Abigail Wix
Tomahawk Leader Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org
One month following publication in the Tomahawk Leader of a summary article concerning a state and federal investigation into Lincoln County’s child support enforcement billing, a county official is indicating the information relayed is “misleading.”
Federal subpoenas were issued to Lincoln County Administrative Coordinator John Mulder, Finance Director Dan Leydet, Corporation Counsel Nancy Bergstrom, Clerk of Courts Cindy Kimmons, Clerk Bob Kunkel and former Social Services Director Jim Bestul in August, commanding they provide documents to a grand jury of the United States District Court.
Sought were all written or electronic documentation between county employees and/or County Board supervisors regarding child support services rendered to the state from 1998 to 2005.
The investigation was sparked by an October 2004 audit by the Wisconsin Bureau of Child Support, which concluded the county had not appropriately documented work it did for the state on child support cases. Counties perform child support enforcement services and claim federal reimbursement for that service. State officials wanted $282,000 in restitution for unsubstantiated charges incurred between 2002-04. Following negotiations, that total was reduced to about $30,000, a number the county is still disputing.
Lincoln County was represented at a closed hearing before the federal grand jury in late October.
On Nov. 28, 2006, the Tomahawk Leader printed a summary article of events leading up to that federal hearing. Information printed was previously reported without errors reported by any agency.
On Dec. 21, Mulder issued a 15-page memorandum to the County Board of Supervisors, stating he felt “compelled to provide … better information and proper analysis regarding Lincoln County’s child support enforcement program” having read a Nov. 28, 2006 article in the Tomahawk Leader. The article was “misleading at best,” he added.
Mulder noted graphs printed in the Leader portrayed a narrow focus and showed only part of the cost of the child support enforcement program. He therefore compiled his own “objective analysis” using state data, revealing that overall cost per case is similar or less than similar-sized counties.
Graphs in the Nov. 28 edition of the Leader, for which, prior to publication, the county did not return requests for comment or clarification, were based on information provided by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD).
Two years ago, that department issued a graph with “comparative county cooperative agreements and budgets.” The counties in that graph were not selected by the Leader for comparison. These same counties were again compared for 2005 and 2006, utilizing numbers from the DWD, and printed in the Nov. 28 edition. The graphs showed that since 2004, Lincoln County’s child support program budget had steadily declined.
Mulder indicated the counties selected in those charts had no “discernable common characteristic” and based an analysis on a category of only “small agencies” comprised of 47 counties. The graphs in the Leader compared “small” and “medium” agencies, he said.
Mulder added that the significant drop in budgeted amounts was due to re-organization of the child support program.
“It should be noted that Lincoln County has used the same basic organizational model in excess of 15 years until the re-organization which became effective on Jan. 1, 2006,” he said.
Furthermore, the state – which was the first to question how the county bills in its child support program and ask for reimbursement due to alleged incorrect billing in 2004 – has never proscribed or prohibited any organizational model for enforcement of child support. Counties have been free to choose the model that best fits the county, Mulder said.
In response to the memorandum, the Leader has noted it has worked to accurately and objectively report all information provided regarding the county child support investigation.
“The summary article printed in the Nov. 28, 2006 edition of the Tomahawk Leader consisted of previously reported information, all which were published without any contention from the county that it ‘contained errors’ or was ‘misleading.’ The information printed was based on data provided by the county and the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
“Mr. Mulder has contested that
the counties compared in charts in the Nov. 28, 2006 summary article are ‘comparative’. The Tomahawk Leader did not choose these counties for comparison, rather, they were chosen by the state. These same counties were compared in a November 2004 article without any contention on part of the county.
“Prior to the printing of the Nov. 28, 2006 summary article, a request to further explain charts displaying information provided by the state was not answered by the county. If there was an error in the articles, the Tomahawk Leader needs to be made aware at the time the article was printed so that the correct information can be reported.
“The Tomahawk Leader’s intention has only been to keep the public informed with as much information as is made available regarding the child support investigation. We appreciate Mr. Mulder providing this additional information.”
Mulder’s analysis concludes that a reasonable result is that Lincoln County’s cost for cooperative agreements may be higher than that of other counties because the County Board chose to establish a child support program relying heavily on cooperative agencies instead of putting those employees directly in the child support agency.
“The facts are that the Lincoln County Child Support Agency has consistently performed well as measured by the federal performance measures,” Mulder observed. “It has done so in a cost effective manner with average overall cost per case similar to or less than comparable counties.”
The subject remains at the forefront of county operations as the county defends itself against accusations for reimbursement, Mulder said.
Mulder stated that David Chapleau, former Social Services director, and Dave Haka, former Child Support Agency supervisor, are “directly responsible for all operational and billing aspects of the child support program.”
“That they now claim that billings made at their direction were false is outrageous,” Mulder said.