MADISON (WKOW) -- A proposal in the Governor's two-year budget will centralize the processing of low-income services and food stamps, but could also increase wait times for much-needed assistance, critics say.
Currently, 71 counties, 7 tribes, and two state agencies process applications for programs like Badgercare, Foodshare, and jobless benefits.
The Governor's budget calls for the creation of a centralized agency to handle all of these requests by expanding the Enrollment Services Center. The ESC is a state agency which currently handles about one-quarter of the low-income application processing in the state, according to the Department of Health Services.
But as Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk points out, ESC has a history of slow application processing.
"I'm a mom. When my kids are hungry, waiting six months is not OK," she said.
According to the Department of Health Services, as of late February, the ESC had 10,387 cases that were unresolved after six months or more. There were 3,990 cases that were unresolved after one year or more.
"In this day and age when we need services more than ever given the economy, waiting six months or longer to get these services that by federal law you have a right to is just not OK," said Falk.
The ESC is part of the state Department of Health Services. Deputy Secretary Kitty Rhoades says the department is currently in the process of retooling the ESC to allow it to handle the 1.4 million people across the state in need of services.
Rhoades says creating a centralized service provider is the state's best option.
"It's the easiest way to not impact services to the people, but to gain the economy of scales to help us get towards the $500 million dollar shortfall [in the DHS budget] that we have yet to fix."
Rhoades says she met with county service providers Thursday to discuss best practices and learn from their years of experience.
But County Executive Falk says she is also concerned about the ease of access to the new agency. Currently residents in need of services can visit the Dane County Job Center and speak to a service provider in person. She says a similar agency in Milwaukee County, MiLES, only processes applications by phone or online.
Rhoades told 27 News that DHS plans to use aspects of MiLES in its new model, but denied claims that the new agency would handle applications online only. 27 News did not ask Rhoades at the time of the interview if service providers would be available for in-person appointments.
County Executive Falk says the changes will force Dane County to lay off 70 employees, and will take away $6.4 million from its budget. According to the Governor's budget, the changes will save the state $48 million over two years.