Short-Staffed and Budget-Bare, Overwhelmed State Agencies Are Unable to Keep Up


On the face of it, the backlog the Hawaii Public Housing Authority is experiencing seems a simple matter of supply and demand. Some 11,000 families are on the authority's waiting list, hoping against the odds that they can get one of only 6,295 public housing units. In a state where housing is notoriously expensive, the only people with a real shot at getting a unit are the homeless and survivors of domestic abuse. Even for them, the waiting can take years. "The waitlist is so extensive and the homeless problem is so great that a lot of people are getting preference over working families," explains Nicholas Birck, chief planner for the Hawaii Public Housing Authority. "They never make it to the top."

But there's another, hidden problem at play in Hawaii's housing backlog. Lately, the authority hasn't had enough employees to manage turnover in vacant units. As a result, 310 homes have been sitting empty, even with all the people languishing in waitlist limbo. For many of the vacant units, all it would take is a few simple repairs and a little bit of administrative work to give a family a home — and get the authority's backlog shrinking rather than growing.

The situation is a byproduct of big budget cuts in Hawaii and a hiring freeze that wasn't lifted until earlier this year. A handful of employees in the housing authority's property management office retired, and the hiring freeze made it impossible to fill the vacant positions. For a while, there was only one person overseeing the office's far-flung portfolio spanning four islands. "It was a very difficult position for her to be in," Birck says. Today, the office's ranks are back up to six employees, but both the number of vacant units and the size of the waiting list have continued to grow since a stateaudit first brought attention to the issue in June.

Hawaii isn't the only place where the everyday tasks of state government are piling up. A Statelineinvestigation found that agencies across the country are seeing growing backlogs of work, as increased demand for state services in a weak economy bumps up against the states' efforts to cut their payroll costs. From public housing to crime labs, restaurant inspections to court systems, four years of layoffs, furloughs, hiring freezes and unfilled vacancies are beginning to take their toll. At its most benign, the result for taxpayers is a longer wait for things like marriage licenses or birth certificates. At its most dangerous, growing backlogs are threatening the lives of vulnerable children, elders and disabled persons, as overwhelmed protective services agencies face delays investigating reports of abuse and neglect.

The size of some backlogs growing in state government is staggering:

  •  The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which investigates teacher misconduct, has 3,240 open cases, involving allegations of teachers doing everything from committing felonies to sexually abusing children. More than 1,000 of those cases have been open for more than a year. The commission has struggled to keep up with its work amid state-level hiring freezes — which until recently prevented it from filling vacancies — as well as furloughs that had been keeping employees home three days per month. 
  •  In Arizona, the state child protective services program is working through a backlog of 9,903 cases that have been flagged as "non-active," a situation the agency blames on high levels of turnover and staff vacancies. This year, at least seven children who have had previous contact with Arizona's child protective services system have died of abuse or neglect. Caseloads are 50 to 60 percent above state standards, with many investigations remaining open for more than six months. Investigators receive two to five reports each week but are only able to close one. A Child Safety Task Force convened by Republican Governor Jan Brewer is expected to provide recommendations about how to improve the system later this month.
  •  Iowa has fallen behind on annual safety inspections of elevators and boilers across the state, according to a September audit. Iowa Workforce Development, the agency responsible for conducting the inspections, was found to be as many as nine years delinquent on elevator inspections; 68 of 100 elevators reviewed by auditors hadn't received an annual inspection.

In almost every backlog, the bad economy and budget cuts have exacerbated the situation. But the worst backlogs are often years in the making, not the result of a sudden spike in demand or single budget cut. They are the result of chronic underfunding and mismanagement, sloppy hiring and training practices, obsolete technology and data management systems, and low morale tied to crushing caseloads. 

Layers of bureaucratic processes often make backlogs worse. If there is a silver lining in discovering that an agency is falling terribly behind on its work, it's that the episode often forces long-overdue conversations about how to streamline processes to force improvements. "A lot of the backlogs occur because processes have evolved and no one has ever looked at them to see if they make sense anymore," says Joe Doyle, a Georgia public administrator who worked in statewide process improvement before moving into his current role as commissioner of the State Personnel Administration.

In Arizona, for example, child protective services officials unwinding their backlog have identified a number of steps in its processes that have no impact at all on child safety. Those steps were likely responses to problems and criticisms at different times, and eventually got in the way of the agency's work, says Steve Meissner, director of communications for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which houses child protective services. "A lot of procedures had been layered onto existing procedures over the years to try to deal with the criticisms that have come our way," Meissner says.

A hard game of catch-up


The problem with backlogs is that once they exist, they can be incredibly difficult for almost any state bureaucracy to eliminate. For the managers in charge, it can feel like digging in wet sand: No matter how hard you and your employees work, sand keeps falling back into the hole.

Getting rid of a backlog requires both keeping up with new work coming in and playing catch-up at the same time. By definition, the new work is something the agency is already struggling with — otherwise there wouldn't be a backlog in the first place. And the catch-up work comes with a whole other set of challenges. Annoyed customers wondering about the status of their business license or tax return call for updates, or simply to complain. There's more correspondence. More complexity. More opportunities for a name, phone number or other vital piece of information to get lost.

This is a familiar cycle to those who work at the Michigan Tax Tribunal, an administrative court that primarily hears property tax disputes. Since 2006, the court's caseload has more than doubled. The reason for that is simple: As property values plunged in Michigan, more residents and businesses began challenging the amount of property taxes charged by local governments. Properties weren't actually selling at prices anywhere near the values they were being assessed at, taxpayers argued. Localities, which had been hit hard by cuts to state aid, were desperate to keep as much money coming in as possible.

"It essentially overwhelmed the Tribunal at that particular point in time," says Kimbal Smith, the court's chairman. Suddenly, thousands of homeowners began appealing their tax assessments. Complex commercial cases came rolling in, too. According to Smith, every General Motors plant in the state was under appeal. Major commercial cases involve complicated appraisals and can take years to resolve.

The Tribunal has been spared from budget cuts, but not until recently was it allocated additional staff or resources to keep pace with its increased caseload. Smith is encouraged by support from Republican Governor Rick Snyder's administration to allocate additional temporary staffers to usher appeals through the process. Still, as of a month ago, there were 11,903 large claims cases pending, as well as another 22,465 on the small claims docket. Many of the cases in question are old: About 7,000 of the large claims cases and 10,000 of the small claims cases date to 2010 or earlier.

For taxpayers, the Tribunal's backlog has a very real cost: Anticipated tax refunds are taking more than 14 months to come through in residential cases. In some commercial cases, millions of dollars are at stake. The delays aren't just a problem for the taxpayers but for struggling local governments, too: With so much of their revenue hung up in tax disputes, it's becoming difficult for some of them to plan their own budgets.

The perils of prioritization

One way overloaded agencies try to handle backlogs is by prioritizing their work. If there's not enough manpower to handle every case, the thinking goes, better to focus first on the ones that cost the most or leave vulnerable people at the greatest risk. The cases that would appear most scandalous if they hit the evening news.

It's a rational response. But it can create its own problems, too. That's because the less severe cases that get pushed aside don't go away. They just get older, and sometimes harder to resolve.

This is a phenomenon that the Texas Board of Nursing has experienced. The board is charged with investigating consumer complaints against nurses. The allegations that come to the board are wide ranging, from nurses not documenting patient care well enough, to failing to disclose a criminal background, to sexually abusing patients. 

Lately, the volume of complaints has been steadily increasing, a development that may be related to a law Texas passed in 2003 restricting lawsuits against medical providers. "Consumers who have been injured might not be able to get satisfaction from a malpractice lawsuit," says Dusty Johnston, general counsel for the Board of Nursing. "It leads to complaining about the nurse to their nursing board. You have a shift of consumers seeking redress with the agency that licenses the health care providers."

The board has developed a complex prioritization system for investigating complaints. Cases are evaluated based on the nurse's likelihood of causing future harm to patients. A nurse accused of inflicting intentional harm or diverting drugs from patients is cause for immediate concern, while someone with a clean record who fails to properly document a procedure or neglects to report an old misdemeanor conviction is less likely to pose an immediate threat to patients. Cases deemed "low priority" can linger unresolved for a long, long time. Currently, there's a backlog of 1,530 cases that are more than two years old.

This fall, the board launched an initiative called "Project Countdown." The Board is hiring additional staff to help meet rising demand for investigations, and investigators have been asked to set aside a portion of their time to focus on eliminating the backlog of very old cases. Through that effort, the number of two years-or-older cases has been reduced from 2,227 on September 1 to the current 1,530.

Although that progress is encouraging, there's a downside to prioritizing cases in this way. Some cases originally deemed low priority have turned out to be more severe than originally thought, says Anthony Diggs, director of enforcement for the Board of Nursing. Diggs would not reveal the details of individual cases, but says investigations sometimes unearth patterns of nurse behavior that might not be apparent from a single complaint over a minor issue. "There are certain investigations that start out as low priority that become higher priority," Diggs says.

The complexity of nursing complaint cases has been increasing, as well. Many cases require lengthy administrative hearings that have taken on all the formality of district court proceedings. Some cases involve contact with as many as 30 or 40 patients, requiring investigators to conduct dozens of interviews and review extensive amounts of documentation. The older the case, the harder this process becomes, as the memories of the patients and nurses involved fades.

Delays on the docket

Increasingly, backlogs in one part of government are contributing to backlogs in another. That's particularly true with agencies whose work intertwines with the criminal justice system, which may be the most chronically backlogged branch of government.

In California, for example, those wrestling with the backlog of investigations into teacher misconduct say their efforts are hampered by delays from the courts and law enforcement. When a teacher is arrested and identified by fingerprint, it can take a long time to get additional information investigators need to close a case. "All we know is there is an arrest," says Nanette Rufo, general counsel for the Commission on Teacher Credentialing. "There are no facts. Some law enforcement agencies have said 'Don't even bother. We won't have [a full report] for at least a month.'"

Some of the most serious state backlogs growing today are in the courts. Increasingly, docket delays are having real-world impacts, says Bill Robinson, president of the American Bar Association, which has been studying the effects of funding reductions for state courts. "We have had in states across the country cases where felons have been accused of serious crimes," Robinson says, "and because of the Speedy Trial Act and inadequate funding that precluded the courts from complying, persons accused of these serious crimes have had to be released because the cases couldn't be tried in time."

One of the most severe state court backlogs is in Georgia. The state court system there has seen its funding drop by 25 percent over the past two fiscal years, leading some courts to shorten their operating hours and lay off employees. The result is that delays have become pervasive in both civil and criminal trials. Criminal trials now often take more than a year to complete, requiring the accused to stay warehoused in local jails at the expense of the cities and counties who run them.

One side effect, according to Georgia Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, is a dropoff in capital punishment cases: This is the first year in a long time that the Georgia Supreme Court hasn't heard a direct appeal on a death penalty case. One jurisdiction has four pending death penalty cases, Hunstein says, "but the county couldn't pay for the jurors or the courthouse."

On the civil side, delays are even more widespread. One circuit has stopped hearing civil cases altogether so that it can focus on its backlog of criminal cases. But on the civil side, too, delays have real-world impact on people. Hunstein worries that delays in domestic violence-related proceedings could leave people in needless danger. And in divorce or custody-related proceedings, the welfare and proper support of children is at stake. Such situations are difficult enough for children and parents to handle without adding months-long delays to the mix. "It's important for the citizens to know that their disputes will be resolved in a timely manner," Hunstein says, "or they might take justice into their own hands."

Stretched "to the limits"

Then there's Hawaii, which has been experiencing backlogs practically across-the-board. State Ombudsman Robin Matsunaga has received a surge in complaints about slow response times from numerous state agencies, including those that provide public assistance, licensing, vital records, public safety and public health. "Based on the complaints we received, the staff reductions and furloughs that resulted from the budget cuts have created a significant delay in the provision of services by most of the agencies," he told Stateline in an email. "In some agencies, the cuts have resulted in the total curtailment of certain services to the public."

Delays in the Department of Human Services are among the most widespread. The department has seen approximately 492 positions eliminated since July 2009, a 17 percent overall staffing reduction. There are delays in responding to and investigating allegations abuse of children, the elderly and people with disabilities. There have been backlogs in processing requests for all manner of assistance, from food stamps to medical benefits and child care, as demand for those services has increased with the slow economy.

The agency is making a major effort to rebuild: Processing time for benefits have been improving as the agency has increased the use of overtime and reengineered its workflow. But fully overcoming its backlogs will take time. In a continuing tough budget environment, getting authorization for new positions so soon after the jobs were eliminated will be a tough sell. And it's becoming apparent that some moves that were made to save money will likely have to be reversed. 

For example, child protective services offices were centralized in order to create efficiencies by closing local offices. The resulting need for case workers to drive for up to four hours to investigate allegations of child abuse, and perform required monthly face-to face visits, has become untenable. Patricia McManaman, director of the Department of Human Services, says the agency is now rehiring frontline workers and moving back to a community-based system.

"It's impacted the morale of our staff," McManaman says. "It has stretched them to the limits."


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