State child support collection increased last year, report shows

Official credits ability to withhold wages for rise

January 10, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland's child support collections rose by 4 percent last year, thanks largely to the state's new authority to withhold court-ordered payments directly from parents' paychecks, a top Department of Human Resources official told legislators yesterday.

Teresa Kaiser, executive director of the Child Support Enforcement Administration, also told the House Judiciary Committee that the department is recommending a continuation of a child support privatization project in Baltimore.

However, Kaiser said the department is preparing a contract proposal that will bring significant changes in the way the current contractor, Maximus Inc., does business.

Kaiser said the state's collections were bolstered by the General Assembly's passage of legislation giving the department the authority to deduct child support from wages in the same way income taxes are collected.

Payments deducted from wages were up 11 percent during the second quarter of last year compared with the same period in 2001, she reported.

Kaiser said the department has had the authority to withhold wages since October 2001 and has had the system automated since March last year.

More than $256 million of the state's almost $420 million in child support collections was collected through wage withholding, according to the child support agency's newly released annual report.

Kaiser said the department will send the General Assembly proposed legislation designed to bring Maryland's child support procedures in line with federal guidelines.

The item expected to generate the most controversy would be a requirement that all wage withholdings be routed through the state's payment center. Legislators have balked at the proposal in the past, she said, but this year the state is facing more than $66 million in federal penalties if it doesn't comply, she said.

"Congress did it for the benefit of the employer," Kaiser said.

Maryland set records in every measure of performance despite a weak economy, Kaiser said. The positive numbers even extended into Baltimore, which traditionally lags the rest of the state in most measures of child support collection.

Kaiser said Maximus had met three of its four performance goals for the fiscal year that ended in June, lagging only in the establishment of paternity.

Collections in the city, which had fallen the previous two years, rebounded sharply - going from $64.8 million to $70.1 million. The 8 percent gain was the best in the state.

Kaiser said the department is recommending a continuation of privatization in Baltimore because it would not be prudent to add state employees to do the work during the current budget crunch.

She said the state will soon put a new contract up for bid, but with substantial changes in its terms.

Kaiser said the state would require the next vendor to use a common call center along with other metropolitan area jurisdictions. Maximus, which has been vexed by complaints about jammed phone lines, operates its own call center.

The state believes a common call center will reduce expenses and help it measure customer service in Baltimore by the same standards applied to other jurisdictions, Kaiser said.

Bruce C. Bereano, Maximus' Annapolis lobbyist, did not return a call seeking a comment.

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