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Welfare Lawsuit

Thursday, May 15, 2003 at 2:37 PM

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Cuyahoga County and the state government have locked horns over federal funding of welfare reform. Today is day four of a trial that began more than a year and a half ago. The lawsuit filed by the county after it suffered a major cutback in federal welfare dollars was a bold move. The case is complicated, steeped in both ethical sparring and legal hair-splitting. ideastream's Bill Rice reports.

Welfare reform is dead in Cuyahoga County, according to County Commissioner Tim McCormick. He’s referring to the welfare reform strategy the county put in place in 1999, one that provided an elaborate mix of programs to help people get and keep jobs - things like child care, job training, and transportation. The strategy was the product of long and careful consideration, McCormack says, and was embraced enthusiastically by state officials.

Tim McCormick: The contract with the state was that we would do the impossible - the very difficult work on the ground, but they had to make sure the building blocks were in place.

That’s what they did in 1999, McCormack says - and then undid two years later by cutting the county’s share of federal welfare dollars. The County Commissioner’s lawsuit cites two counts, both centered around a practice known as supplantation. That’s described by lead attorney for the county Geoff Mearns as the shifting of funds from their originally intended purpose to another. The first charge is breach of contract, brought on, Mearns said at the trial’s outset, by the state’s shifting of federal welfare, or TANF, dollars to cover other pressing state needs like education.

Geoff Mearns: The state diverted the funding, diverted the TANF funding that was necessary to sustain these programs. And in doing so they breached their commitments to the county commissioners, they in effect pulled the ladder of support out from under the county commissioners, but the people who are on those ladders.

The second count involves the actual accounting, which Mearns called an elaborate shell game. It worked like this, he said: The early childhood program Head Start had up until 2000 been funded with state dollars, while federal TANF money was funneled to Cuyahoga and other counties for their welfare reform programs. In the 2001 budget Legislators eliminated the state’s contribution to Head Start, then refunded it using federal welfare money that previously had gone to the county’s welfare efforts.

Geoff Mearns: The defendants violated the state law by laundering TANF funds through Title XX and through Special Fund 5Q8 to balance the General Revenue Fund.

Both charges are groundless, according to state lawyers. Assistant Attorney General Juliane Barone countered in her opening statement that the shuffling of funds was technically legal under both state and federal law. And, she said, while state officials endorsed the county’s plan for welfare reform, there was no legal contract mandating the state to continue funding it indefinitely.

Juliane Barone: Cuyahoga County, by initiating this litigation, is attempting to shift accountability to the state instead of living with the decisions it made fiscally with regard to the types of programs it chose to fund.

3 days of testimony in the case has focused on sources of funding - of which there are several - and rules regarding how those funds are to be used - all pertinent to whether the letter of the law was violated. Wrapped around that have been the ethical questions raised by the plaintiffs, on which they hang much of their case. They claim the state, by drastically reducing funding crucial to effective welfare reform, hasn’t just broken a promise, but has dashed the hopes of thousands who were counting on that reform to help change their lives for the better. State officials say they’re sympathetic, but they’ve done nothing illegal, and right now there just isn’t enough money to go around. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.

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