Deny, deny, deny.
That’s the action that the Davison County Commission takes more than 150 times a year with welfare claims that come across its table. Those actions usually don’t get much time or consideration from the commission during the commission's regular meetings, but it’s not an insignificant part of the county’s business or spending.
A Daily Republic analysis shows that through the month of July, there had been 111 denied welfare requests to the Davison County Commission for welfare assistance in 2019. There were 161 denials in 2018. But Commission Chairwoman Brenda Bode said that’s really only the start of it. She compared it to buying or selling a car and turning down the first offer and many times, it starts a battle that can take years to decide how bills that are still outstanding will be paid.
Counties are legally responsible to provide assistance to indigent residents under state law, and Davison County’s guidelines for welfare — which are 22 pages in length — call for claims to be resolved “equitably and efficiently.” Recipients can only receive a housing allowance and utility allowance once per year, and how much they might receive depends on how many people live in a residence, ranging from $300 to $550 for a month’s rent and $250 to $375 for a month’s utilities. Housing assistance can also be provided if an applicant has an eviction notice.
Those costs have added up in Davison County, which has accumulated more than $85,000 in various bills this year already, ranging from $20 for a tank of gas for transients coming through the county to $2,500 for funeral costs to more than $44,000 in a single hospital bill in April.
Davison County’s budget for poor relief spent $224,629.58 in 2017, and $209,822.52 in 2018. The budget for 2019 jumped to $303,481, and the initial projection for 2020 — while still preliminary — called a poor relief budget of $279,071.
Bode said she believes the county is correctly walking the line between providing assistance but trying to maintain a high standard to receive welfare.
“Everyone has a reason for why they are applying, but what kind of reason is it?” she asked. “Compassion has no part of it. It’s a business thing. We don’t get to pick and choose.”
Bode said a high percentage of the cases involve transients who are seeking money for gas or a hotel room. She said Davison County is fortunate that there are hotels in Mitchell that charge the county as low as $35 a room.
“That’s not even a third of what they would have gotten if they rented it to someone else,” she said. “If we put someone there, they truly need it. … It’s one night and then they need to figure out where they need to go after that.”
Commissioner John Claggett, who has been on the board since 2007, believes Davison County has improved its policies for the better, to make sure that the county’s costs are minimized.
“As far as the county goes, we’ve tightened up our side of things to make sure people are very well-vetted out,” Claggett said. “We’re to the point where we’re doing what we can to keep those costs down to the taxpayer.”
There’s also the years-long battle over medical costs. In many cases, according to quarterly reports filed with the county, hospital charges can exceed $2 million for a given year, while the potential liability — the costs still being negotiated — is whittled down to approximately $200,000. The actual amount paid by the county can range in the tens of thousands of dollars for a given year, but potential liabilities leave uncertainty over how much has to be paid.
“We put those numbers in limbo that we might have an obligation for,” Claggett said. “But we’re waiting for the vetting that needs to be done and the legal obligations to get played out. It is a long-term process.”
From a welfare standpoint, there’s a benefit to having as many people on health insurance as possible, something the commission’s all-Republican members had to concede has been a positive of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The commissioners have been highly critical of Obamacare in public input portions of meetings in recent years.
Claggett said the more formalized system of health care has helped to clearly define what is expected of welfare applicants. The commission denies claims for various reasons, ranging from an inability to prove a place of residence, to non-emergency costs, to not meeting income guidelines or incomplete paperwork requirements. Applications for welfare are confidential, so a certain level of trust is assigned to the commission to properly handle those requests.
“If people choose not to follow the guidelines, they end up being the ones that get hurt,” he said.
Bode said she believes the county’s role is to connect individuals with other services available, such as the Salvation Army or Mitchell Food Pantry for food, or various services for a ride.
“It’s how we can assist someone to help themselves,” she said. “I know in our county and the areas we serve, I think it’s a very low number of people who want assistance.”