Moultrie Observer

Local News

May 8, 2012

No choice but to close

MOULTRIE — With budget cuts totaling millions in the last few years, Social Security administrators on Monday described the closing of the office here as a choice between people or buildings.

The closing of the Moultrie Social Security Administration office is estimated to save $4.6 million over 10 years, including $1.3 million in salary for a Thomasville manager who will not be replaced after retirement.

The agency announced in late March that it would close the Moultrie office effective July 1, with its 11 employees moved to other locations. If the closing goes through it would be the second in the state in less than a year, with the Swainsboro office closed in December.

Nationwide, the agency closed 18 offices in 2010-2011 and so far in the 2011-2012 budget year has closed 22, Michael Grochowski, regional commissioner for the Atlanta region, told a group of community leaders Monday at a meeting at the Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce. “Frankly, we don’t have a choice,” he said of closing the Moultrie office.

Audience members brought up the issues of lack of transportation, identity theft, elderly residents who are not Internet savvy and easily irritated by dealing with computer telephone systems

Outside of the densely packed Atlanta area, the Moultrie office has the smallest service area out of 35 offices and does less “business” than another office in the state, with about 60 people seen in person per day, said Kenneth R. Chaney, Georgia area director.

Out of about 15,000 visits per year, Chaney estimated that only about 300 to 400 people who come into the office actually need to see a Social Security case worker in person.

Most visits are related to applications for Social Security Income cases, not such activities as applying for a new or replacement card or setting up payments upon retirement.

In addition, he said, about 25 percent of Colquitt County residents already go to an out-of-county office because their home is a closer drive to another city such as Albany than to Moultrie.

“We can’t afford, with the Social Security budget we’ve been given, to keep every Social Security office open,” Chaney said.

 “We can decide whether we’re going to keep the employees or keep some buildings open and not have the people to do the work.

“My preference from a service standpoint is to preserve the staff that actually does the work.”

With a hiring freeze in effect, 33 positions in Georgia were lost with retirements last year, he said. Other than that the agency has not laid off or furloughed workers

With physical visits to a Social Security office rarely needed, Chaney said that an educational campaign will be launched to let Colquitt County residents know what other options are and how to use them. That media campaign, which will include newspaper, radio and television, will begin in June, he said.

About 20 percent of business done by residents of Colquitt County already is done over the Internet, Chaney said.

“We want to communicate to people that you don’t have to drive 28 miles, you can pick up the telephone and do 99.9 percent of the business you need to do,” he said.

Chaney, reacting to a suggestion from the audience, also said that if security and private meeting space were provided it may be possible to keep limited temporary office hours in the county for a few months after the closing.

The closing of the Social Security office is not the first to affect the county as state and federal agencies have pared budgets. Georgia Pines closed its mental health facility here Sept. 1, 2009. Since the closing, patients who need to access in-person services have had to drive to Pelham or Thomasville.

And last year the Hartsfield post office was placed on a list of potential closures.

A community meeting was held on the post office in November, an agency spokesman said in an email Monday.

 The Postal Service announced earlier this year that no closings will occur prior to May 15.

The U.S. Senate voted last month to put a freeze on the closings of post offices for a year, while a House version of the legislation would allow for a faster timetable on closing mail centers and rural post offices.

 

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