Mechanic questions DSS repair payments

This week, the Catawba County Department of Social Services exhausted a pool of state money designated for critical car repair for impoverished citizens. Meanwhile, one area car technician said he's repairing luxury vehicles, while DSS is using these funds to pay a portion of the bill.

"I think it's completely irresponsible," said Michael Norris, owner of Norris Auto Clinic in Newton. "If the customer can afford (an expensive car), then why can't they pay for the repairs?"

The N.C. Department of Transportation provides funds to the Rural Operating Assistance Program, which is handled through DSS. The program is a state-funded public transportation grant program, and in August, DSS was given $33,681 to provide car assistance to residents in need.

This includes $25,854 for maintenance repairs to personal cars and $7,827 for one payment to cover up to three months of personal car insurance.

Karen Hefner, Work First supervisor with DSS, said the Employment Transportation Assistance program falls under the Work First program, which allows qualified people help getting and maintaining a job.

"As you know, transportation can be a huge barrier for families, and this program can assist qualified citizens in maintaining their transportation, which in turns helps them maintain their employment," Hefner said.

Work First is a program administered through DSS to assist families from moving off of welfare and into taking care of their families. The program helps clients focus on employment and short-term financial assistance.

"We do what we can with the funds and help as many as we can," Hefner said.

Since August, Hefner said about 100 Catawba County residents were assisted in the program.

Hefner said qualified applicants have to complete a 200-percent worksheet, which shows the family's monthly gross income. The monthly gross income, which is counted for all household income, has to meet the federal poverty guideline for the number of people living in a household.

For example, a family of four has to have no more than $3,725 monthly gross income to qualify for the assistance, which is at the 200 percent poverty level.

In addition to the income worksheet, applicants have to have a valid N.C. driver's license; a car registered in their name with proof of registration cards and titles; and car insurance.

However, the type of car the person owns is not part of the criteria.

"The criteria is that it is their car, and it is worth fixing," Hefner said, adding that the car has to be "a true need" for the individual to maintain employment. "We don't look at the age of the car."

Norris said he has seen two clients who utilize DSS assistance to pay car repair costs — one client has a 1995 Ford Explorer and the other is a 2002 Audi A4 Quattro. For the Audi, Norris said DSS paid $217 on a coolant leak, and he is expecting a $300 check for a head gasket.

"I want to know who's approving and who's appropriating the funds," Norris said, questioning, again, whether someone driving a luxury vehicle should receive DSS assistance. "How long is the government going to last if we keep giving free money? I don't know the process, and I don't claim to know. From deductive reasoning, this doesn't make sense to me. Questions should be asked."

Hefner said the program is open to the general public, but typically, clients in the program are assisted because they recently became employed.

"We try to target people that have just gotten off Work First and got a job," Hefner said. "It's open to the general public, as long as they meet criteria."

However, Norris said the policy should be reviewed by someone with knowledge of vehicles because he feels paying for repairs on luxury vehicles is not how taxpayers' money should be spent.