Director of JFS agency touts improvements
JFS has improved its accuracy in two key areas, the director says.
By PETER H. MILLIKEN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County's Job and Family Services director says his office has increased the number of working clients and improved case processing accuracy and service to clients under his leadership.
"The most important thing is we have improved our client services. We have reduced the number of errors that we make in the processing of applications," said John Zachariah, who became JFS director July 5, 2005.
The local JFS department's overall accuracy rate as determined by state audits went from 87 percent in June 2005 to 94 percent in April 2006, the department said. This figure is a measure of accuracy of eligibility and benefit determinations.
"Our staff is more diligent in maintaining the accuracy of processing the cases," Zachariah said.
Zachariah, who previously was Franklin County JFS director, was hired by Mahoning County commissioners to replace Delores Crawford, who retired last year. Zachariah supervises a staff of 330 and annual expenditures of about $450 million, including the department's child care, food stamp and Medicaid benefits.
The percentage of all clients working 30 hours a week went from 44.8 percent in June 2005 to 54.8 percent in June 2006. For clients in two-parent families, the rate went from 44.4 percent to 63.8 percent over the same time period. "We are not only processing things, we are giving people hope," Zachariah said.
Clients are required to work 30 hours a week to receive their benefit checks unless they have a medical exemption or some other valid reason for not doing so, he said.
"We just don't want to give people benefits for the rest of their lives. We are trying to teach them skills. We're trying to get them back in the work force," said Lori A. Murphy, the JFS performance management administrator.
To help with that transition, the department has obtained a $422,000 state grant in partnership with the Burdman Group for career advancement and support services designed to help clients get and keep jobs.
The Burdman Group, which has its headquarters on the North Side, works to help solve problems emanating from domestic violence, lack of employment or mental illness.
To ensure that JFS clients have continued access to jobs, Zachariah said he is exploring ways to continue financing the Western Reserve Transit Authority's night bus service, which is being jeopardized by funding cutbacks.
Zachariah introduced in Youngstown the Economic and Community Development Institute -- a program already established in Columbus, which emphasizes asset-building through home ownership, higher education and entrepreneurship. ECDI's office is at 20 Federal Place (the former Phar-Mor Centre) on West Federal Street.
"We believe the only way a person can be really successful in life is through having some kind of wealth-building opportunities," Zachariah said.
To help children get the education necessary for financial success when they grow up, the department obtained a $760,000 state grant to expand an after-school program that is part of a truancy intervention effort. The grant will enable that program, now at Hayes and P. Ross Berry middle schools, to expand to eight other Youngstown schools Oct. 1.
The truancy intervention effort is a partnership of the Youngstown City Schools, JFS and Mahoning County Juvenile Court.
In an effort to ensure that children grow up in financially secure homes, the department also is aggressive in collecting child support. Last month, it ranked second in Ohio, behind Cuyahoga County, with $172,585 in arrearage collections, Zachariah said.
Client service also has improved beginning in the department's front lobby with more staff assigned to the reception windows to reduce waiting time, Zachariah said. Clients are now interviewed only once, even if they apply for multiple assistance programs, he said. "If we get a complaint, we try to resolve it within 24 hours," he added.
A kiosk installed last week allows clients to use a keyboard to announce their arrivals to caseworkers with whom they have appointments, rather than stand in line. The department hopes clients will eventually have the option of using the kiosk to apply for assistance, Zachariah added.
The director said he looks forward to the agency's move from Garland Plaza on the city's East Side to Oakhill Renaissance Place -- the former Southside Medical Center -- which the county recently purchased and plans to convert to a county office complex.
On a table in Zachariah's office were preliminary drawings of the department's new quarters at Oakhill by architect Raymond Jaminet. The department would have about 100,000 square feet designed to better suit its functional needs on Oakhill's first and third floors, with client services on the first floor and administrative offices on the third floor, Zachariah said.
The new location would offer ample parking, an auditorium and a one-stop shop for clients who need to use other health, social service and job training agencies housed there, the JFS director added.