In 1986, the computer system -- used by the Ventura County Public Social Services Agency to collect welfare overpayments -- crashed.

This event marked the beginning of a long and frustrating search for a system that could efficiently recoup overpayments for the county in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Food Stamps, Foster Care and General Relief programs.

No other county had a system that could be modified for use by Ventura. Bill Armstrong, the agency's system administrator for fiscal collections, searched for solutions at technology conferences. All of the software packages he explored would have required extensive programming changes to minimally meet the unique needs of welfare overpayment collections. In the meantime, the agency limped along with a manual system.

Finally in 1993, Public Social Services and the Treasurer/Tax Collector's Office agreed to work with the Information Systems Department to develop a collections system that could meet their respective needs. When it was determined that their needs were too dissimilar, separate systems were developed.

Staff members from both Information Systems and Public Social Services developed the Ventura Automated Collections System (VACS) with approximately $250,000 in federal, state and county funds. The system, which automated the maintenance of much of the information necessary to pursue the collection of receivables resulting from welfare overpayments, went online in November 1994.

VACS provides a comprehensive view of debt status, including case, debtor and payment plan information. The system also provides complete information about financial and collection activity regarding overpayment debts. A collection officer work loading function is incorporated to notify collectors and other users regarding priority actions to be taken in pursuing the collection of debts.

The system produces demand for payment letters in both English and Spanish and monthly statements to clients and deposit reports reflecting financial activity which must be periodically reported to external accounting systems. For management, the system provides workload reports with a graphical view of collection activity performed by system users.

Armstrong was actually co-located in the Information Systems Department for much of the project's 12-month development period and created most of its standard reports. This arrangement provided him with the knowledge and insight to function effectively as Public Social Services' VACS administrator and first line of support.

In addition to Armstrong, three Information Systems staff developers and a project manager were assigned full time to the project. Jo Edna Smith, Public Social Services' fiscal officer, served as the end user project manager. An outside consultant was also utilized to assist in defining requirements and ensuring that the delivered product met those requirements.

VACS has dramatically increased the amount of overpayments collected by Ventura County, according to Public Social Services Agency Chief Deputy Director Barbara J. Fitzgerald. Since the first automated statements were sent in April 1995, collections have increased by 23 percent.

"Ventura County accounted for all collections activity manually during the eight years from the time the previous system became completely dysfunctional to the time VACS came online," Fitzgerald said. "So far, only 42 percent of the active cases have been entered into the system. As more cases are entered into the system, monthly collections payments should continue to increase."

MULTICOUNTY USE

Designed from the start with the goal of multicounty use, VACS is being marketed by the Information Systems Department to other California counties.

With the help and strong backing of the state Department of Social Services Fraud Bureau, the California VACS Association (CVA), a county consortium, was formed in August, 1995. The association currently consists of 18 counties. Information Systems serves as contractor to the association, maintaining and upgrading a single, common version of VACS software for all CVA counties.

An automated interface between the Statewide Automated Welfare System is currently under development. Automated interfaces between VACS and the California Case Data System