A Case Where Local is Better than State

Quite often, that government is best which governs closest to home. An important function of county government known as "Friend of the Court" is a case in point.

The Friend of the Court (FOC) is a county-based department that collects, monitors, investigates, and enforces orders for the circuit court judges in domestic relations cases throughout the state of Michigan. Statewide, there are almost a million cases involving almost twice that number in actual lives affected. Last year, the 83 county Friends of the Court collected over a billion dollars in child and spousal support and medical expenses for Michigan families.

Each FOC office collects and disburses funds for orders issued in its jurisdiction-an example of local government serving its citizens locally. The FOC offices also implement the many modifications of these court orders that arise in case after case. Michigan law mandates that support ordered in domestic relations cases be automatically deducted from paychecks by an employer upon request of the local FOC.

Over the past year, discussions have been held at both the federal and state levels regarding "centralized collections" for child support. Centralized collections would require all support payments to be sent to one location (Lansing, for example) and disbursed from there. All other financial and case maintenance of court orders would remain in the local FOC offices. Coordination of the case account status, now entirely maintained locally, would be split between the counties and state government in Lansing. Instead of working with one office, for example, parents who need action on their account quickly would be forced to work with two-and the one in Lansing may be hundreds of miles away.

Congress now requires that each state either operate an automated centralized collections unit for the collection and disbursement of support or use local units (as is the case now) if it can be demonstrated that by doing so, payments will be timely and the process cost-efficient. The question is, which method would be best for Michigan?

The most recent experience with centralizing what were formerly local functions is the Child Support Enforcement System (CSES)-a central computer system proposed for handling all the accounting and enforcement functions of FOC offices. The counties were promised a "state of the art" central computer system for child support enforcement and access to case data from throughout the state, but the actual result was a dismal state failure: It took thirteen years and over $100 million to install CSES in smaller counties comprising just 20 percent of the state's caseload. The state is struggling with how to install CSES for the other 80 percent of cases and how to pay for it, amid rampant mismanagement and an unfavorable auditor general's report.

At the outset, the cost of implementing CSES was expected to be half the current $139 million price tag for the system. The FOC Association-a voluntary association of all FOC administrators in Michigan-points out that the technology and business practices are already in place that make the creation of another centralized function costly, inefficient, and unnecessary. Yet, the state is trying to embark on a centralized collections and disbursements system when it should be focusing its attention on fixing its CSES problem.

The FOC Association proposes a collections and disbursements system that is both simple and supported by current technology. The Association suggests using a market-driven process involving banks, employers, and electronic funds transfers to implement a statewide system of collection and disbursement of all support monies. This solution is possible without the investment of millions of dollars. It would also avoid the significant delays associated with centralized collections. And it would meet the time and cost-effective criteria established in federal law.

Technology already exists that would allow everyone involved in Friend of the Court matters to continue to use their local financial institutions and local government exclusively. There is little reason to believe that centralization at the state level would be cheaper, better, or quicker. Parents and children do not need the time-consuming frustrations of dealing with two different layers of government when one is sufficient.

This is clearly one area that would be best kept local.