Florida DCF plans to shut down many Tampa Bay Area offices
In a cost-cutting move, the Department of Children and Families plans to close offices across the Tampa Bay area.
Hillsborough County is expected to lose three offices. Pinellas County would lose one. And Pasco County would lose its only office.
Residents go to the offices to use computers to apply for Medicaid, cash assistance and food stamps. But 95 percent of clients use computers outside DCF's offices to apply, the agency says.
"They don't ever have to come in," said DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie. "There's no requirement for anyone to come in face to face."
Employees won't be losing jobs, she said. Many already telecommute, and some will shift locations.
Closing buildings will allow the agency to keep staff and accommodate a record-breaking numbers of applications for public assistance, Gillespie said. Among the more dramatic examples: The ranks of food stamp recipients in Hillsborough County jumped from 215,957 in July 2010 to 243,484 last month. In Pinellas County, Medicaid recipients rose by more than 5,000 from one July to the next.
The closure plans are not yet firm, Gillespie said, but an office at 1313 N Tampa St. in Tampa will be among the first casualties, closing this month. The remaining Tampa office at 9393 N Florida Ave.
DCF could close the St. Petersburg office at 525 Mirror Lake Drive in the coming year. The department intends to shut down offices in Port Richey, Plant City and Ruskin.
To fill any gaps, the state wants to establish additional community partners, the non-profit agencies where people can fill out applications or check their benefits. There are 16 such partners in Pasco, 41 in Pinellas and 65 in Hillsborough County.
"I imagine we are going to get busy,'' said Wendi Herzman, chief executive officer for the Deaf Services Bureau of West Central Florida, whose New Port Richey office helps anywhere from two to 50 people a month with DCF issues.
In Ruskin, a community partner predicted the office's absence will hurt clients.
"We are very, very frustrated," said Laura Cruz, compassion minister at The Lord's Lighthouse Ministry Inc.
Cruz said she often takes clients to the Ruskin office if they are not able to get help over the phone or online.
She tries to be a fierce advocate for her underprivileged clients.
"They say no to them and they just put their head down and they leave. They don't say no to me," she said. "I stay until they have to see my clients and that has always worked."
Once the office closes, Cruz said, "If they don't answer you, what do you?"
Even if existing offices close, DCF employees could still maintain a presence, Gillespie said.
"If there are not enough community partners or we feel there is extra need in an area, we can also open up a DCF storefront, which is a small local office for people to come in and apply,'' she said.
At Daystar Life Center in St. Petersburg, executive director Jane Trocheck Walker said agencies like hers can only do so much as they help people with their applications and play the role of troubleshooter.
Daystar, which receives about $5,700 a year for its efforts, is required to keep logs of people assisted, she said.
"But the reality is, do you write everything down and see less people, or do you get people the help they need? This is something we do in addition to all of our other basic-need services. DCF, that's their primary function.... We don't have all the tools that a DCF office has."
Budget cuts could mean less money for agencies like Daystar. The Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center in Safety Harbor, which has seen a significant jump in DCF-related cases over the past two years, will receive $5,500 instead of the current $7,500, executive director Janet Hooper said. "I realize it's less money, but we're still grateful to receive funding to do one-on-one assistance," she said.
DCF Plans To Shut Down Many Tampa Bay Area Offices
Written by Jen G.