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Mass. Interim Commissioner of Department of Transitional Assistance Hears Concerns from Berkshires

Massachusetts Interim Commissioner of the state Department of Transitional Assistance visited Pittsfield last night as part of a statewide campaign seeking public input on how to improve integrity and client services in the Commonwealth.

DTA Interim Commissioner Stacey Monahan stopped in Pittsfield Wednesday evening as just one several stops she is making soliciting comments from community members across the state. At the end of the multi-city tour, a report with all the information will be submitted to the legislature and Governor’s office for consideration.

Monahan said that she was pleased with the variety of concerns brought to her attention at the Pittsfield meeting.

"I was really impressed by the high level of the dialogue here tonight," said Monahan.

Of the handful of residents who articulated their concerns with the agency was Mike Morelli, an Americorps paralegal working with the benefits department of the Pittsfield office of Community Legal Aid, an organization that provides legal assistance to low-income and elderly households in western and central Massachusetts.

Morelli said that changes should be made to the lump sum regulations for recipients of cash assistance dollars, such as in a legal settlement situation.

"When they get the lump sum by regulation they may have to spend that money down," said Morelli. "They could lose their money for a number of months if they can't spend that money appropriately."

Morelli added that it would be important for the clients he works with for the DTA to expand exemptions on paying down a lump sum to be able to cover the cost of securing housing, public transportation, or other unrelated outstanding debts. He advocated for the DTA to allow recipients of cash assistance benefits to build an asset account with a lump-sum payment.

"Maybe they can have that account for education or for transportation," said Morelli.

Janice Broderick, Executive Director of the Elizabeth Freeman Center, an organization that provides assistance and shelter for victims of domestic violence, said that cash assistance benefits for victims of domestic violence should be increased to allow families to secure housing.

"When people leave an abusive situation they generally have no money, so those benefits need to be livable so that people can survive," said Broderick.

Broderick also advocated for more access to the agency in Berkshire County. Currently DTA offices exist in Pittsfield and North Adams. She said those in need in southern Berkshire County are without a nearby office or adequate public transportation to a DTA facility.

Broderick also seeks more DTA support for education and training, and to eliminate the cash assistance Family Cap Rule.

Concerns were also heard about increasing the DTA’s involvement with assisting families find more affordable housing.

Interim Commissioner Monahan said that many of the ideas she heard at the hearing were consistent with comments she’s been receiving in other parts of the state.

"I think that our case-loads are a consistent theme that we need to do something to give relief to our workers and to serve our clients," said Monahan. "Some of the domestic violence issues that came up tonight are some common themes."

The listening tour is just one part of the DTA’s recently launched 100 Day Action Plan announced earlier this year by the state Inspector General’s office to improve the agency, which officials say may be wasting up to $25 million per year by providing benefits to ineligible recipients.

The plan includes data matching at the Registry of Motor Vehicles to ensure state residency for beneficiaries, and also through the Department of Revenue to verify income.

Other reforms will focus on enforcing rules for use of EBT cards and monitoring of the SNAP food assistance program.

An external audit is also being launched on the DTA to uncover any other areas in need of improvement, among other actions intended to restore public integrity.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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