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Courthouse Fight Catches Single Moms In The Cross Fire

Thu., Oct. 3, 1996, midnight

Making deadbeat dads cough up child support soon may get much harder for hundreds of Adams County single mothers.

County commissioners say they’ll shut down the local child-support enforcement office at the end of the year unless its workers move to a new county building.

The shutdown would cost the mothers a voice in court to help enforce child-support orders.

But County Prosecutor David Sandhaus, who oversees the statefunded office, refuses to move unless he’s allowed to hire two enforcement workers.

Neither side in the stalemate - part of a longstanding feud between Sandhaus and the commissioners - is budging.

Caught in the middle is the state Department of Social and Health Services.

DSHS hires county prosecutors to do the job, said Michael Ricchio, a top administrator in the agency’s child-support division. The state is spared the trouble of setting up its own offices in every county, he said.

In the early 1990s, the state hired Adams County to try paternity cases, necessary for determining who pays child support.

The state pays $201,000 per year to the county, which set up a child-support office in Othello. Rent there is $900 per month. The office handles 300 child-support cases a year.

In 1994, DSHS asked the county to take over more duties. To help out with the increased caseload, DSHS agreed to pay the salaries of another half-time attorney and a secretary.

But commissioners - who butt heads frequently with Sandhaus over budget requests - refused to hire the two extra staffers.

“They won’t cost us anything, but I don’t think we need them,” said Commissioner Bill Wills. “That’s taxpayer money.”

Sandhaus argues that the commissioners are being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Enforcing child support keeps single mothers from going on welfare, he said, saving taxpayers considerable money.

This summer, the county built a new office in Othello, and DSHS agreed to move there, despite the fact that the county would charge twice as much rent: $1,822.

“Sandhaus really doesn’t have a say on whether he moves or not,” said Wills.

“We built the building in good faith and then, when it gets time to make the move, the prosecutor, which is David Sandhaus as of today, wants to play poker with that,” he said.

Sandhaus doesn’t see it that way. The move, he said, was based on the need for space for the extra workers and extra cases. Without them, he said, why move?

He said he’s also worried about the new building’s location, on the opposite side of a state highway from town. About 70 percent of the people who come to the office, he said, walk there. They often bring strollers and small children.

“How can we justify to the taxpayers doubling the rent and providing a less accessible building?” he said.

It’s unclear what happens next. Sandhaus has asked the commissioners to hire a mediator to work things out.

Last week, DSHS wrote to the commissioners, asking for a meeting and to inspect the new building.

The reply arrived in Wednesday’s mail: an ultimatum from the commissioners.

“Michael, the Board of Adams County Commissioners are not going to play games with taxpayer money,” read the letter to Ricchio. Either the office moves by the end of the year, it said, or the state can find another way of enforcing child support in Adams County.

Wills said the state’s obligated to enforce the cases, so it’s not as if single mothers are being left out in the cold.

But Ricchio said he has no idea how long it would take to recruit another county or local private attorneys to take over the enforcement.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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