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A paperwork pileup has left some of the neediest Rice County families waiting for weeks for food assistance and health insurance.

The social services backlog in the county, which includes Faribault and Northfield, has prompted concerned residents and community leaders to press county commissioners to make the paperwork processing more efficient.

County officials argue that they're trying to keep up with an unprecedented spike in social services applications since the economic downturn took a toll on families' finances. They say they have taken extra steps this month to unclog the system, including getting help from the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

"We're caught up," Rice County Social Services Director Mark Shaw said last week, "and we want to stay caught up."

Last summer, social services clients started complaining to people like Jim Blaha, executive director of the Community Action Center in Northfield, a nonprofit that provides food, clothing and other temporary support to families. He said he's heard from about 50 Rice County residents waiting an extra six weeks to five months for benefits due to processing delays.

"This is an abominable situation ... probably the worst the state has seen," Blaha said. "If [assistance] isn't restored right away, what are you supposed to do? It's back to square zero. It's a very tense situation for clients."

The state Department of Human Services received 38 complaints in the past six months from Rice County about delays in food assistance applications, a spokesman said, and the state set up a 30-day hotline for Rice County to help respond to questions. In addition, four state employees worked two days in Rice County to help. Ten employees from other counties also worked Saturdays through March 24 to alleviate the backlog.

But now, social services advocates say they fear the county won't be caught up for long if it doesn't add staff and resources to social services.

"They've done a lot of stop-gap things," said Bob Griggs, a pastor at First United Church of Christ in Northfield. "I would be concerned the problem simply isn't going to reemerge."

Most benefits applications have to be processed within 30 days, such as food assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but there are no state-initiated fiscal sanctions in place if counties miss the deadlines, the state department said. Counties with processing rates under 95 percent are required to develop and implement a corrective action plan.

Shaw said his office aims to process all food and cash applications within 30 days and health assistance within 45 days, but "I think we're challenged with the capacity and case load we have," he said.

The 6,400 social services cases they have open now is 33 percent more than four years ago. While his staff was increased by two last year to about 20 staffers who handle applications, he said they logged 1,100 hours of overtime.

"Could I have extra staff? It would certainly not hurt," he said.

One long-term solution could be on the horizon. Rice is among 12 counties discussing sharing services regionally. If approved by each county, Shaw said, it wouldn't take effect for three to four years.

kelly.smith@startribune.com Twitter: @kellystrib

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