Audit critical of program for needy
An audit of the state's use of federal money to help the poor says the program "falls short in its planning and accountability."
The audit, prepared by auditor Marion Higa, was triggered by reports last year that the Department of Human Services had spent more than $1 million on an anti-drugs and alcohol media campaign and an additional $625,000 to pay for art projects. That triggered a call by the Legislature to audit the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Higa urged the Legislature to take control of the TANF funds if changes are not made.
"We recommend that the Legislature consider using its appropriation authority under federal law to guide the department's TANF spending unless adequate changes are made to its planning and accountability practices," Higa's report said.
Lillian Koller, human services director, rejected much of Higa's criticism, saying the word "oversight" is "pejorative and unnecessary as we have demonstrated our willingness to work collaboratively with the Legislature.
"There is no need for the Legislature to characterize their role in setting their priorities as an 'oversight' of the department," Koller said.
The federal government gives the state $98 million a year in a block grant that can be used for programs ranging from simply giving cash grants to needy families to supporting programs for job training, substance abuse or youth guidance.
Higa's report said the Human Services Department followed federal guidelines for TANF funds, but had not developed long-term plans or a process for public involvement.
"The department's decision making is guided by the availability of federal funding rather than a comprehensive plan and coherent strategy," Higa said.
Koller said it has started formulating a new strategic plan and held its first planning session on Jan. 11.
"It was attended by various community stakeholders, including legislators, state and local government agencies, community action agencies and advocates," Koller said.
But, Koller argued, the federal government reviewed the program and said it followed proper guidelines, while new restrictions placed on the state agency by the Legislature last year have left the state unable to use $35 million out of the $98 million grant.
The Legislature put restrictions on the funds, causing the money to be put into a TANF reserve which can only be used for assistance to eligible families. The reserve, Koller said, already has $113 million.
"These TANF reserve funds can only be used for cash to individuals on government assistance and can no longer be used on child care, job training and other self-sufficiency, youth and family strengthening programs," Koller said.