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The state Department of Health and Human Services is racing to meet a Monday deadline to clear a backlog of thousands of food stamps cases, but the benefits system that distributes the food assistance will be shut down over much of the weekend.

ncfastThe N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology) system will be shutting down at 3 p.m. Saturday for scheduled maintenance to update federal poverty guidelines for a separate April 1 deadline the state is facing, according to DHHS communications staff.

 

The system was initially scheduled to go down at noon but was pushed back to 3 p.m. in order to allow counties more time to tackle backlogged cases.

It’s unclear if it will be enough time, with  staff in Guilford County contending with a recently realized  3,000 to 8,000 backlog of pending food stamps recertification cases.

Several of those families, including those like Melanie Richards, have been waiting months for benefits, and have turned to food banks or are faced with bare cupboards.

Richards, who contacted N.C. Policy Watch Friday, said she’s been waiting since January for Guildford County to recertify her food stamps, and used money earmarked in her limited budget for gas and housing to buy food for herself and her four children.

“I’m about to lose my place, using money I don’t have for food,” Richards said. “I don’t know how I’m going to pay anything for April.”

The scheduled shutdown of the NC FAST system tomorrow creates another challenge for the state agency to meet a Monday deadline set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to clear a backlog of food stamps cases that had persisted through most of last year.  At risk is $88 million in funding the state receives from USDA for monitoring the food stamps program.

The sudden discovery on Wednesday of 3,000 to 8,000 pending certifications in Guilford County put Monday’s deadline, which the state thought it was otherwise on track to meet, in question.

The troubled roll-out of the state’s new benefits delivery system last year resulted in delays for thousands of North Carolina families waiting for emergency food assistance.  USDA officials, which oversee the distribution of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) sent several warnings that the North Carolina problems needed to be resolved before a strongly-worded January letter that told N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos that it may rescind administrative funding to the state.

“Citizens of North Carolina that need help putting food on the table are not receiving the basic level of responsiveness and quality of service that they deserve from their government,” a USDA official wrote in a January letter to Wos.

Guilford County Manger Marty Lawing said the social services division informed him this week that it had a backlog of thousands of cases that hadn’t been logged into the NC FAST system. He estimated that backlog to be around 3,000, down from earlier estimates of 8,100 cases, though he added that concrete case load information was not available.

“The primary focus now is to get as many cases reviewed as we can,” Lawing said.

The county will launch an internal investigation next week as to what led to the previously unknown backlog.

Lawing said the scheduled shut-down for the NC FAST system is an added challenge.

“We’ll do the best we can with the time we have,” Lawing said.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Greensboro Democrat, said was upset to hear about the situation in Guilford County, and the slow response over the last several months to deal with the issues N.C. FAST has had distributing food stamps.

“It’s still a very ineffective system,” Robinson said about N.C. FAST.

She also said the mishandling of the food stamps has left her and fellow Democrats asking for a change of leadership at DHHS.

“We’re very tired and frustrated and we’ve expressed that,” Robinson said. “The governor needs to take responsibility. It’s at their level, the citizens are suffering.”

Labor statistics released today show that North Carolina’s unemployment rate was down to 6.4 percent in February, a drop that puts it below the state average for the first time since before the recession.

But the numbers released this morning by the state commerce department’s labor and economic analysis division also show the state’s labor force dropped by nearly 64,000 jobs from last year  – an indication that the gains made in the unemployment rate may be due to individuals dropping out of the workforce.

The state’s labor force — made up of people currently in jobs and those looking for work — was 4.66 million in February, a drop from the 4.72 million this time last year, according to data released today in the jobs report.

The unemployment rate, which is down from the 8.6 percent the state experience in 2013, has emerged as a politically contentious point regarding the health of North Carolina’s economy.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s office has held up the steadily dropping unemployment right as a sign that North Carolina is on the right track.

“I’m pleased to see that more and more people are getting back to work, but the job is far from finished,” said Governor Pat McCrory, according to a written statement released by his office.

Critics, however, say that looking at the unemployment rate numbers alone missed out on other important economic trends, including stagnant unemployment among some groups that have spurred many to simply stop looking for jobs.

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The state discovered more than 8,000 pending applications for food stamps in Guilford County, a development that puts the state at risk of losing federal administrative funding if it misses a Monday deadline to clear a backlog.

ncfastWe reported yesterday about DHHS’ discovery of the pending cases, which N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos informed lawmakers about at an oversight committee hearing Wednesday. Missing the deadline could mean the loss of $88 million in funding the state receives to distribute the food assistance program.

On Wednesday, Wos said she didn’t know what the scope of pending cases were, having just been informed before Wednesday morning’s meeting, but told legislators that the delayed cases weren’t a result of the troubled N.C. FAST technology system. The cases had not been entered into the system.

The state had been on track to meet a Monday deadline set by federal officials to clear a backlog that had been in the thousands but had dropped to 520 cases, Wos said.

WRAL spoke with Guilford County officials today, and learned that more than 8,100 cases are waiting to be processed. More than 100 people are expected to work on the backlog over the weekend.

From WRAL:

Guilford County officials say they’re calling in extra help to process 8,100 backlogged food stamp applications before a critical deadline next week.

Commissioner Ray Trapp said Thursday that officials “have a plan in place that we’re pretty sure is going to work.”

About 100 people will work for the next five days to meet the Monday deadline set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the state to clear an ongoing backlog in processing applications for food stamps, Trapp said.

About half are county staff. The rest will be state workers, contractors and workers in other counties’ social services offices on loan to Guilford County.

The applications had never been entered into the state’s benefits management system, NC FAST, so they did not appear on the state’s tracking records. Trapp said the problem was actually discovered by a state worker who had come to the county office to help with NC FAST problems.

Click here to read the entire story.

UPDATE: The Greensboro News & Record has more details on what is behind the Guilford County backlog. Guilford’s social services directors failed to tell county commissioners that there was a steadily increasing pile of cases waiting for recertification, and Guilford commissioners say they plan to investigate once the backlog is taken care of.

The department released a brief statement Thursday, saying only that it is working to clear the backlog and remains in touch with state and county officials.

Lawing said Williams led the board and him to believe the county’s backlog had been handled in February.

“Obviously that wasn’t the case,” Lawing said Thursday.

Trapp said neither the Guilford County Board of Commissioners nor the county DSS board were told of such a problem before this week.

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Read more here.

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon, a Democrat who took office this year, was arrested today on charges stemming from a federal corruption investigation.

Cannon is accused of accepting bribes from business developers who were actually working undercover for the FBI in exchange for help from Cannon in navigating the city of Charlotte’s permitting and zoning processes. Cannon is accused of taking  $48,000 over the course of several bribes, and the FBI investigation preceded Cannon’s mayoral term when he was on Charlotte’s city council.


News of Cannon’s arrest was made public this afternoon, and developments are likely to continue. A copy of the probable cause affidavit, in which the FBI details its case, can be read here.

Here’s the latest from Charlotte’s WCNC, who met up with Cannon outside the federal courthouse:

In total, Mayor Cannon accepted about $48,000 in cash, airline tickets, a hotel room and use of a luxury apartment, the FBI says.

NBC Charlotte reporter Rad Berky was the only one outside of the courthouse when Mayor Cannon walked out from the building. The mayor didn’t have much to say when asked about the charges.

“What happened? Can you tell us what happened?” — RB

“Well, nothing at this point that I can discuss. But I’ll certainly be back in contact with you.” — PC

“What would you tell the voters of the city today, sir?” — RB

“There’s nothing too much I can say at this point, but when I’m able to, I’ll touch base.” — PC

Cannon is free on a $25,000 unsecured bond.

 

Below is a summary of the accusations levied against Cannon, detailed in the FBI’s probable cause affidavit:

Screenshot of Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon's indictment. Text by FBI agent detailing accusations

Screenshot of Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon’s indictment. Text by FBI agent detailing accusations

 

UPDATE: Guilford County officials are reporting 8,100 backlogged food stamp applications before next week’s deadline.

Guilford County is sitting on an unknown number of pending applications for food stamps, a development North Carolina health officials say puts the state at risk of not meeting a March 31 federal deadline.

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos informed lawmakers about the problem in Guilford County at a health oversight committee hearing Wednesday morning about the state’s Medicaid budget. She said the news came just five days before a U.S. Department of Agriculture to clear the last of what was a massive backlog of people waiting for federally-funded food assistance.

“Guilford County may have a backlog that is more significant than previously reported”  Wos said, adding that she learned of the problem just minutes before the meeting. “We are concerned.”

Wos did not provide many details about the scope of the Guilford County issue, other than to say that it appeared that the county social services staff had not entered the information into the state’s benefits delivery system called N.C. FAST.

“This is not a problem with the NC FAST system,” Wos said.

She told lawmakers that state officials depend on counties to provide accurate information.

“We only know what the counties have entered and we are reliant on their accuracy,” Wos said.

DHHS staff was on its way to Greensboro to assess the problem, she said.

Wos said that, other than the recently realized issue in Guildford County, the state  was on track to meet a March 31 deadline set by the U.S Department of Agriculture,  with just 520 pending cases in the state.

The backlogs stemmed from the troubled rollout of  the N.C. FAST (Families Accessing Services through Technology) system last spring as well as heavy caseloads at the county level as requests for food stamps have doubled in some urban counties.

In December, a USDA official wrote Wos and told her that more than $80 million of federal funding could be withdrawn if state health officials didn’t quickly fix the backlog. Federal officials repeated their warnings in January, telling Wos that “(c)itizens of North Carolina that need help putting food on the table are not receiving the basic level of responsiveness and quality of service that they deserve from their government.”

The agency met a Feb. 10 deadline to deal with those who had been waiting several months for benefits, an effort Wos described then as “Herculean.”

Over the last few months, N.C. Policy Watch had heard from multiple people in Guilford County having issues receiving food stamps, including 72-year-old Maria Best of Greensboro, who has been without food assistance since November. Read More