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More support, less government

The county is collecting a lot of child support using a private company



As soapboxes go, reducing the size of government is a favorite for local elected officials.

Colorado Springs has made headlines recently for privatizing typically government-run services like fleet maintenance. But don't discount El Paso County, which has its own list of privatized services, including child-support services.

If a local noncustodial parent fails to dish out a court-ordered monthly payment to his kids, it's a private worker who decides whether to suspend his driver's license or seize his bank account. It's been that way for years. And County Commissioner Sallie Clark says it's working, even if it's a bit unusual.

"I think we're an anomaly," she says. "Most of the counties have staff."

State law allows counties to outsource child support services, and gives private workers all the enforcement powers normally reserved for the government. Most counties, however, have kept the services in-house, including Denver. (The Independent asked staff at the Denver office why they chose not to outsource, but was told they didn't wish to comment.)

Jeff Ball, project manager for the El Paso County Child Support Services division, has plenty to say about the benefits of outsourcing. Like the other 63 workers in the division, he's actually employed by YoungWilliams, a private company based out of Jackson, Miss. The company has operations in 11 states and runs all sorts of child support functions, including three statewide call centers, a state disbursement unit in Kansas and an employer database for child support in Texas.

The county originally hired the company for $3.6 million a year, with an option to renew for four years. But YoungWilliams has already been renewed repeatedly, and the contract will go back to open bid in fall 2015.

Child support is a complex issue, and not everyone is happy locally. The Independent hears regularly from parents frustrated with their experiences with the agency. Still, the numbers, at least, indicate that YoungWilliams has been successful.

Clark says outsourcing has saved the county money, and it's meeting or almost meeting most statewide goals set for child support services. Last year, YoungWilliams collected $47.5 million in child support payments, besting Denver's $42.6 million despite the fact that Denver has about 6,000 more cases.

The company also met the state goal that at least 90 percent of cases needing a paternity test to determine fatherhood be completed, and that at least 80 percent of cases have a child support order (hitting over 86 percent). The latter can be difficult because obtaining an order can involve court hearings. Other times, a noncustodial parent can be difficult to identify or track down.

The company missed two other goals: that at least 64.3 percent of child support owed is paid (they hit 61.1 percent), and that at least 71.4 percent of parents who are behind on payments pay some of their debt (they hit 65.9 percent). Those two goals were largely unmet statewide.

Perhaps most notably, YoungWilliams collected $11.87 for every dollar it cost the county. Denver, by comparison, collected $4.83. Similarly, YoungWilliams collected $819,000 per full-time employee, while Denver collected $352,000. The statewide average was $522,000.

Ball says those goals haven't been achieved by laying down the hammer. He says his company attempts to work with parents and got almost a 100 percent satisfaction rating on a walk-in survey. For instance, he says, if a father who's long paid child support is out of work for a few months with a broken leg, they're not going to suspend his driver's license.

"Most of your remedies are for the chronic non-payers who really try to avoid paying," he says. "But that's the minority."

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