County reviews food stamp program

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— Local officials from Routt County Human Services are working with the state agency that oversees the state's food stamp program to ensure mistakes like the one made in January are not repeated.

At the end of January, a 25-year-old Steamboat Springs man was mistakenly credited with $10,000 on his food stamp debit card. Instead of reporting the balance to local officials, the man allegedly went out and spent $4,000 on meat and seafood in one day.

Sascha Karl Fischer has been charged with felony theft of between $500 and $15,000 for allegedly going on a shopping spree at three area grocery stores Jan. 31.

"Now that we have learned this the hard way, we are going to be very careful," said Robert White, Routt County director of human services. "We are working aggressively with the state to make sure this does not happen again."

White is working with officials from the Colorado Department of Human Services to determine if a program within the state's food stamp information management system can be made clearer, White said. The program White is referring to is the program that is used to adjust a client's benefits.

"The issue is where the decimal point should be placed," White said. "We are working with the state department to clear up the appearance of the computer screen of the program the state provides us. You can't tell where the decimal point goes."

On Jan. 30, Ruth Mewborn, who works for the county agency, adjusted Fischer's food stamp allocation because he had just got an apartment at the D Bar K Motel.

With rent included in Fischer's assistance, Mewborn calculated the man was to receive $106 in food assistance. When Mewborn entered the amount into a computer, she mistakenly credited the account with $10,600. The mistake Mewborn made has been made in other counties, said Mike Westmoreland, a food stamp analyst for the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Westmoreland has been working for the state agency for the past 19 years. This is the first time he has heard of a case where a client has gone out and spent the amount that Fischer allegedly did in so little time.

Local officials were notified of the mistake Feb. 1, when they were contacted by an official from the State Electronics Benefit Transaction Division.

The state official notified the local agency of Fischer's account balance and the transactions. Fischer's account was immediately frozen, and authorities were contacted to investigate. White also believes that familiarity with the adjustment program also contributed in Mewborn marking the mistake.

Although Mewborn has worked in the office the past six years, adjusting a client's benefit is rarely done, White said.

"The restoration screen is not used all that much here," White said. "We usually get it right the first time."

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