Privatized collection of child support eyed

Expansion considered, but firm in city criticized

March 09, 2001|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

State lawmakers are considering expanding the private collection of child support in Maryland, even as the company that handles such work in Baltimore is under fire for poor performance.

Maximus Inc. has been collecting child support in the city and in Queen Anne's County since Nov. 1, 1999, when it took over from another contractor that failed to meet performance goals.

The Annapolis lobbyist for Maximus, Bruce C. Bereano, has been aggressively lobbying legislators to have a private firm handle child support collection in Prince George's County, as well. If such a change is approved, Maximus is expected to bid for the work.

The legislation Bereano helped draft also would extend the privatization project in Baltimore for three more years, beyond a scheduled expiration date of Nov. 1, 2002.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the legislation, said his objective is to improve child support collection. "The results we've seen in some of the private programs have been pretty good," he said.

But critics say privatization is not likely to improve collection efforts in Prince George's if the experience in Baltimore is any guide.

In a recent report, a legislative analyst wrote that Maximus is "struggling to meet its goals" and suggested state officials need to reassess the benefits and costs of continuing the arrangement.

State reports show key performance measures - such as the amount of dollars collected and the establishment of child support orders in court - declined after Maximus took over in Baltimore. While the numbers were down in the city, they were up in the rest of the state.

"If it was a good idea, they would be improving on those numbers somehow, someway," said Kimberly D. Roberts, a manager in Prince George's County's child support enforcement office.

She noted that the $63.8 million in child support money that Maximus collected in its first fiscal year is $7 million less than the previous contractor, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary, had collected during the last year it held the contract.

Dwayne Brown, who manages Baltimore operations for Maximus, said the figures are misleading. He noted that Lockheed Martin was still in charge for four months of the fiscal year for which the numbers were drawn. "I am extremely confident that, over the life of the contract, Baltimore is going to fare not just well, but do extremely well," Brown said.

The proposal to have a private company handle collections in Prince George's has generated intense opposition from public employee unions and from child support workers in the county.

"It's beyond my understanding why they want to do this when it costs the state in more ways than one and does a disservice to kids," said Sue Esty of the American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees.

The three-year Baltimore contract calls for a base payment to Maximus of $39 million a year, with up to $2.4 million in incentive payments if it exceeds certain performance standards.

Child support enforcement has been a county-run operation in Prince George's, but county officials notified the state last fall that they want to turn the operation back over to the state.

Bereano said Maximus has a contract to handle customer service work for the Prince George's office and was interested in taking over the entire operation. "It was natural for Maximus to think of doing the whole piece," he said. He said he and Maximus attorneys helped draft the proposed legislation.

The proposal has some powerful support. The House version is co-sponsored by Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat.

But a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening says he does not favor the legislation, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, said he is inclined to vote against it.

Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

11 a.m. Senate meets, Senate chamber.

11 a.m. House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

1 p.m. House Judiciary Committee, hearing on gay rights legislation, Room 120, Lowe House Office Building.

1 p.m. Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, hearing on alcoholic beverage bills, 2 West, Miller Senate Office Building.

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