Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

August 18, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

Child Support

  |   Video
  • August is National Child Support Month. Veronica Ragland of the Arizona Department of Economic Security will talk about the department's latest efforts to improve the collection of child support.
Guests:
  • Veronica Ragland - Arizona Department of Economic Security
Category: Government   |   Keywords: child support, national child support month,

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
August is National Child Support Month. It also has been declared Child Support Awareness Month in Arizona by the governor. In fiscal year 2008, the state collected $689 million in child support payments through enforcement efforts using a variety of tools. Here to talk more about that is Veronica Ragland. She's in charge of the child support unit for the Arizona Department of Economic Security. Thanks for joining us tonight on "Horizon."

Veronica Ragland:
Thanks very much for having me.

Ted Simons:
The child support collected by DES, upwards of several million dollars or so. How much goes uncollected?

Veronica Ragland:
Approximately, 50% of -- on the dollar is what we're currently collecting. So we collect 50 cents on the dollar of obligation.

Ted Simons:
The idea of making that a little bit better, different ways, what's being used, the ideas out there?

Veronica Ragland:
There are a lot of creative things. In the last six years we've increased collections about 7.5 cents on the dollar and doing a lot of things to optimize the use of enforcement tools. Reprogramming our system to ensure it's throwing the cases we need into the enforcement remedies and in addition, we're coming up with creative solutions such as seizing bank accounts and even retirement accounts. For example, recently, we started seizing retirement accounts and within three months, had $150,000 collected from retirement accounts.

Ted Simons:
Wow, and not only retirement, you're talking everything from paychecks to lottery winnings.

Veronica Ragland:
That's correct, to inmate banking accounts.

Ted Simons:
Talk to us about that. There's a situation in southern Arizona.

Veronica Ragland:
Certainly will. Recently from the relationships we have with law enforcement, we learned several inmates were receiving a class action settlement so we immediately issued what are called limited income withholding orders and the lead class action recipient had a child support obligation of $36,000, which we seized and paid to the state and the family.

Ted Simons:
My goodness. There are other options, of going after taxes too.

Veronica Ragland:
That's correct. In anticipation of the changing economy, we thought we should take a closer look at our enforcement areas. We noticed there were several cases not being subjected to our enforcement tools that should have been subjected. And as a result, in the last year, we increased collection of federal taxes by 22%.

Ted Simons:
You mentioned the changing economy. There are lots of folks who want to do the right thing. Take care of their kids. They can't. They've lost their jobs or have a job that doesn't pay as much. What kind of mitigation process goes on?

Veronica Ragland:
We welcome, especially in today's economy, the applications for modification of child support orders. We want to make sure there's a realistic order that matches the person's ability to pay. By receiving modifications, we are able to work with the income that the person is currently receiving.

Ted Simons:
You mentioned the fact that -- before I ask that one, the economy in general, are you seeing more folks just not meeting these obligations because they can't, due to the economy, or are other factors at play? Seems like it's becoming an increasing problem.

Veronica Ragland:
I think more because of the economy and with that, we're seeing a shift. For example, when people are employed, we typically get our collections from income withholding orders. As people lose their job, they may receive unemployment insurance and we're able to seize part of that. In addition, by doing tweaking with our programming, we're able to collect more dollars from -- remedies that had not been optimized previously.

Ted Simons:
I know that you guys work with law enforcement around the state. Talk to us about that relationship.

Veronica Ragland:
We're happy about the support we get with law enforcement agencies. For example, it was a law enforcement agency that helped to lead to the collections that we received from the class action lawsuit. And we're hearing more about additional class actions that are occurring across the state from tips from law enforcement agencies and we're happy about their support.

Ted Simons:
You mentioned the story regarding the prisoners in southern -- are there other stories?

Veronica Ragland:
We have wonderful stories. One of the creative ways we've also been using to battle the economy as well as to show compassion, is we have a settlement project. And it looks at cases with certain criteria, and we contact non-custodial parents and ask them to submit an offer on their child support obligation. This program has been met very well and we've been able to collect over a quarter of a million dollars simply -- of stale child support obligation.

Ted Simons:
Are people -- do you think people are aware that this thing exists?

Veronica Ragland:
I think people are becoming more aware. We just started that program, again, in the last six months in order to respond to what we see happening in the economy and we're -- we're developing the project further and we're hoping to expand it. Not only to child support obligations where the children have emancipated but also where there's a huge arrears balance but ongoing current child support.

Ted Simons:
Is there a typical case you're involved with? Basically cut across all socioeconomic lines or seeing more -- with the economy the way it is, among those who have lost their jobs and those sorts of things?

Veronica Ragland:
There's no such thing as a typical child support case. It's very complex and individual as any family and we're pleased we've been able to increase our collections by three percentage points and 6.5% average each year for the last six years so we've not seen a typical case.

Ted Simons:
If someone is watching and they're in a situation where they want do the right thing but things aren't working out so well and perhaps they've maybe missed a payment or two or three and worried about repercussions there, it behooves them to get this fixed, how do they go about it?

Veronica Ragland:
The first thing I want them to know is that every child deserves the love and support of their family. And we work very -- we work with all parents. We work with the custodial as well as the non-custodial parent. We urge either or both parties, if they want to partner and come to the office together to request a modification and -- the settlement project. We're working with people. Given the current economic times, we find it's keeping the parents working together as partners.

Ted Simons:
You mentioned getting the responsible parent to be responsible. But it comes back to the kids. Talk about the societal aspect of making sure these obligations are met.

Veronica Ragland:
As the governor mentioned in a statement recently, that being a parent is a sacred responsibility. To love and to nurture and provide for your children. And it certainly is for the -- for the parent to be accountable, and the -- help to gain the child's trust and will help the child understand love as long as the parent is providing for his or her child.

Ted Simons:
Not only that, but also keeps folks away from assistance and these other things that we're all paying for and having a hard time finding money for.

Veronica Ragland:
Yes, not paying child support certainly puts the family at risk for not being able to meet its basic needs and in addition -- its needs. And cash assistance or food stamps and we attempt to work and partner with both parents, to ensure the child support continues to flow so that the basic needs -- we're looking at a time now as back to school. They have shoes and, you know, whatever is their basic sustenance.

Ted Simons:
Appreciate you being here.

Veronica Ragland:
Thank you very much.

Schools and Swine Flu

  |   Video
  • Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne updates us on what schools are doing to prepare for what could be a swine flu outbreak this school year.
Guests:
  • Tom Horne - Arizona Superintendeant of Public Instuction
Category: Education

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Good evening and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. No one knows just how bad the swine flu might get this upcoming season, but schools are gearing up just in case. Part of that planning includes preparing for a large number of students and staff to be out with the virus. Here to talk about how schools are getting ready for a return of the swine flu is Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne. Good to see you again.

Tom Horne:
Great to be here.

Ted Simons:
When are you expecting the next wave to hit?

Tom Horne:
Right off the bat. As kids get back to school, it will spread.

Ted Simons:
Compare and contrast with what happened earlier in the year.

Tom Horne:
It will be worse. This is a pandemic. I don't want to get you depressed but there were only three pandemics in the century, what we're facing is the second wave.

Ted Simons:
What plans are in place?

Tom Horne:
Every district and charter school needs a plan and we've given them a lot of information. They need a response team. Communication set up. How the response team communicates with itself and the rest of the school and parents and students to let them know if school is closed or whatever and they need to be prepared, obviously.

Ted Simons:
And the line of authority for closing schools?

Tom Horne:
The county health department, the state health department, the governor, or the school -- the school board can make a decision to close schools.

Ted Simons:
Sick kid at school, maybe a lot of sick kids at school, that day, that morning, they come down and they're sick; what happens?

Tom Horne:
The best thing for them -- to go home if there's somebody there to take care of them. Some schools have set up separate rooms so they won't infect the other students.

Ted Simons:
Are there mandated separate rooms?

Tom Horne:
No, we don't have authority to mandate things. We can only send out memos giving information, telling them what planning consists of. How we would suggest they plan for things. They need communications already written to send out if they need to at the last minute.

Ted Simons:
There's probably a lot of instances where the kid gets sick and there's no one to take care of the kid and if there's no area to keep the kid, what do you do?

Tom Horne:
It would be a good idea to have an area, and you know, like last spring we had a school that discouraged a teacher from going home when they were sick and could spread it. In our memo, we encourage people to go home if they're going to spread sickness to other people. Last spring we were sort of inclined to closing -- inclined to closing schools down. The federal government is saying not to do that except in extreme circumstances. Put the responsibility on the parent if the student is sick. Keep them home until 24 hours after everything is passed. There's a shift to put the responsibility on the parent.

Ted Simons:
What plans are in place if a lot of students and/or teachers are so sick they can't make it to school?

Tom Horne:
If you have a lack of teachers and lack of kids at the same time, it probably evens itself out but the planning responsibility is placed with the district or the charter school. And they need to plan for these things.

Ted Simons:
I know funding for these districts and education funding in general is often based on attendance and student population and how many kid are in the classroom.

Tom Horne:
I have the power to waive that, so if there's a lot of absenteeism because of a pandemic, I can wave it and they can get their full funding.

Ted Simons:
There's a hundred day dividing line?

Tom Horne:
Yes, the attendance is calculated for the first 100 days and that sets the funding in the case of district schools for the following year.

Ted Simons:
So after 100 days, it doesn't matter, but before that, you have to figure out if there's a lot of kids missing from one school.

Tom Horne:
That's correct.

Ted Simons:
Is there a vaccination plan in place for schools?

Tom Horne:
That's in the hands of the health department. The federal government is setting up priorities and that sort of thing.

Ted Simons:
Do you know of any in place right now?

Tom Horne:
I don't. You mentioned the 100 days, that's irrational. We should be measuring the whole year-round. I think it's historic from when things were calculated with quill pens and big bound books and they didn't have computers. We can calculate on a daily basis and we should be doing that. I suggested to the legislature they change it to the full year. Organizations that I've referred to, core organizations that protect the status quo, objected because they were afraid it would cut their funding. But what you have now is district schools and charter schools both accusing each other of sending -- getting rid of students on the 101st day and the district schools sending the charter schools -- it makes no sense to cut it off.

Ted Simons:
In this situation, you don't want a school afraid or hesitant to send a child home because they're afraid it might cut into funding if all of a sudden, half the second grade is sick.

Tom Horne:
You certainly don't, but I do have the authority to make exceptions if it's a result of pandemic, and I certainly will do that.

Ted Simons:
Last question. How much of an impact was the H1N1 when it hit last spring, how much did it impact education in Arizona?

Tom Horne:
Only a few schools closed as I remember. It will be bigger this time. But we're going to try to avoid closing schools and try to make sure it's the parents' responsibility and the schools will be teaching the kids hygiene. Wash your hands, cover your nose and don't put your fingers in your eyes or nose and that's how it gets inside. So there's a lot of educating to do. It's part of our job. Good hygiene methods to minimize the spread of sickness.

State Parks

  |   Video
  • Renee Bahl, Director of Arizona State Parks, explains how budget cuts have affected her agency's ability to properly care for Arizona's parks system.
Guests:
  • Renee Bahl - Director of Arizona State Parks
Category: Environment   |   Keywords: state parks. arizona state parks,

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Much has been made of state budget cuts and their impact on education and social services, but many other government functions are also feeling the pinch. The operating budget for Arizona state parks has been slashed from $26 million to about $19 million. The agency was expecting about $8 million from the state general fund, but that's not going to happen. Instead, the agency is relying on visitor fees and various other sources of funding. Meanwhile, parks have been closed. Historic buildings have fallen into disrepair. And the agency is looking for creative ways to do its job. Here to tell us about the challenges facing Arizona state parks is its executive director, Renee Bahl. Thank you so much for joining us.

Renee Bahl:
Glad to be here.

Ted Simons:
The state of the parks system doesn't sound that hot.

Renee Bahl:
No, it's pretty dire right now. As you mentioned, our budget was $26 million. It actually should be $30 million. Last February, we were reduced to a $21 million operating budget, parks closed, we suspended grants. We stopped awarded grants to local communities and reduced hours at a number of parks. With the new fiscal year, our budget is $19 million and our entire general fund has been eliminated.

Ted Simons:
The entire fund?

Renee Bahl:
The entire fund, which had been 13 months ago $8.35 million is now zero.

Ted Simons:
Three parks closed and including McFarland Park in Florence.

Renee Bahl:
And Jerome Park and Tonto National Bridge closed in February. We work with the community and helped us reopen it on weekends. Both are under repair right now.

Ted Simons:
And we should mention that parks system also include buildings like we're seeing here in Florence. Historic buildings that need help. Need renovation and repair.

Renee Bahl:
They do, and they've fallen to the wayside in the last few years. We have probably $150 million in deferred maintenance and capital improvement needs throughout our park system.

Ted Simons:
The other needs include?

Renee Bahl:
The historic parks like you were talking about. We have water lines we need to replace. We have paving that needs to be repaired throughout our parks system. It's everything you can imagine. They're like little cities. Wastewater treatment plants.

Ted Simons:
And these affect the surrounding cities. You mentioned up around Tonto Bridge. That's hurt the area quite a bit.

Renee Bahl:
State parks are a huge economic engine throughout the state. The people provide $250 billion of local taxes annually, directly and indirectly. So when a park closes, it's not just closing for use of recreation or for conservation purpose, but it's hurting that community. People aren't visiting and spending their tax dollars there.

Ted Simons:
The general fund, how much does that contribute to the overall parks budget?

Renee Bahl:
Well, we used to have about $8.5 million; it was about a third of our operating budget. And today it's zero. So zero percent.

Ted Simons:
Interesting. But before, ideally, you'd get 30 some odd percent.

Renee Bahl:
About that. 30% from the park user fees. When you come and spend your $5 to enter the park. Or $20 to camp. And a third from conservation taxes that the voters have said they need. Like the heritage fund or growing smarter funds and lake improvement funds.

Ted Simons:
And talk about the heritage fund, what it is and money was -- was it swept out of the fund?

Renee Bahl:
The heritage fund is a $10 million fund when fully funded. $20 million total and comes from lottery proceeds. This fiscal year, $3 million is transferred for fire suppression out of the heritage fund and half a million to the natural resource conservation districts. So our $10 million is slowly dwindling down and we're using what we can to operate and there's not much left.

Ted Simons:
And the heritage fund and some other budget sweeps occurred as well.

Renee Bahl:
We lost $3 million of our enhancement fund, which is about $8 million. So that's a large percent and $3 million out of our lake improvement fund which is a little under $5 million. So over 60% of it was swept.

Ted Simons:
You mentioned grants also not happening as well. Why is that?

Renee Bahl:
For a couple reasons I mentioned due to the sweeps and we award to local communities to build out their parks because we're a state park system but the money is just not there.

Ted Simons:
Is there a way for the park system to be self-sufficient? I ask that with the idea, are there privatization models? Sales and leasebacks? Is there something you guys can do to get out from under the general fund merry-go-round?

Renee Bahl:
We were never designed to be a self-sufficient department. Most state parks are not. And the little bit of general fund money that was put in; we're a huge economic engine. But there is a taskforce right now looking at self-sufficiency models to fund Arizona state parks systems. And they're looking at a variety of mechanisms to get us out of the legislative appropriations year after year so we can operate. Is there an opportunity for privatization? I think there's always an opportunity for appropriate uses at parks to provide additional recreational amenities. But these are for the public and they should be operated by the state.

Ted Simons:
State parks for the public. Could you also include kind of a co-opt management system where not just the state but everyone is involved in making this thing work?

Renee Bahl:
Absolutely. We welcome partners. We have partners in Yuma helping. And private concessions at some parks to offer different amenities. As long as it's open to the public and its appropriate access, that's what is important.

Ted Simons:
Give us a timeline for when we can look for our other state parks to perhaps not be open anymore.

Renee Bahl:
Yes, the state parks board will have difficult decisions to make at their 11th of September board meeting. We'll be proposing to them how to meet these additional budget cuts. $2 million cuts on top of what's already been closed. They're going to look at everything from visitation to revenue, to economic viability of all of these parks and they're going to have to make cuts in our programs and parks.

Ted Simons:
And right now, you guys are operating on a day-to-day cash flow basis?

Renee Bahl:
We are. We used to have it set aside and now we wait for the revenue to come in and basically spend it the next month.

Ted Simons:
Is this getting the attention of the legislature or just getting lost in the roar?

Renee Bahl:
Probably getting lost in the roar and we need to remember you don't have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment and you can have both.

Ted Simons:
All right. Renee thanks for joining us.

Renee Bahl:
I appreciate it too.

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