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Molokai to Rally

Human services closure halted.

While many cheered at the thought of the Department of Human Services (DHS) not closing 31 offices around the state, Director Lillian Koller called last Wednesday “a sad day.”

Last week, the state legislature voted to pass Senate Bill 2650, CD1, which would keep DHS’ eligibility offices open. The bill set up a pilot program to test DHS’ phone and internet system, only for counties with more than 500,000 residents, of which Honolulu County is the only one.

“Folks I know, who need so much better service than what they’re getting, will have to keep waiting to get into the 21st century,” Koller said. The reorganization would shut down 31 of the 33 offices statewide, potentially laying off 232 positions in favor of an upgraded phone system and automated web capabilities.

An eligibility office provides applications, renewal of applications, and maintenance services for about 66,000 public assistance recipients.

Uniting to Protest
Before the bill was passed, residents on Molokai began organizing a rally to show opposition to the office closure, which would potentially put four residents out of their jobs.

“This [rally] is also a good time to show our appreciation for the individuals in the Legislature statewide citizens and community agencies who have worked very hard, organizing and preparing testimony to stop this plan,” said island resident Kalae Tangonan in a letter.

The rally will be held on Friday, April 23 at 5 p.m., at the State office building next to the public library.

Paperwork and Math
Toni Schwartz, communications officer for DHS, said the streamlining would save taxpayer money, but the purpose is to help their immediate clients.

“[The plan] is to get assistance to people faster, to get assistance to people who need it the most,” she said.

Koller said DHS has been backlogged for months in their eligibility services, and phone and online applications are a more efficient way to get business done.

“Talking story is not a bad thing, it’s the aloha way, what I’m saying is there’s a downside to that,” she said. For eligibility to be determined, paperwork and math is all that’s needed, she added.

The backlog was “demonstrably not true” because of the furloughs that began in November of 2009, Koller said.

“It was actually worse before layoffs – what made the difference to improve was we started to use the phone system,” she added.

Schwartz said DHS will maintain options for clients to speak to workers face-to-face, through the other DHS offices – such as First To Work and Childcare Connections – as well as webcams in the offices.

Possible Veto
Last Friday, Rep. John Mizuno, the House Human Services chairman, released a call-to-action for those against the closure, encouraging constituents to continue to call their legislatures and support the bill.

Mizuno said a veto by Gov. Lingle is “anticipated.” To override a governor’s veto, state Congress would need a two-thirds majority to pass the bill into law.

Nora Nomura, executive director of the DHS union, Hawaii Government Employees Association, said there seems to be “overriding support” from legislatures like Mizuno, and the pilot program could have a positive outcome.

“If the state decided to proceed with the Oahu plan, it’s an opportunity for input from the community, employees and clients,” she said.

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