oversight

Farm Programs: Impact of the 1996 Farm Act on County Office Workload

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-08-19.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                  United States General Accounting Office

GAO               Report to Congressional Requesters




August 1997
                  FARM PROGRAMS
                  Impact of the 1996
                  Farm Act on County
                  Office Workload




GAO/RCED-97-214
                   United States
GAO                General Accounting Office
                   Washington, D.C. 20548

                   Resources, Community, and
                   Economic Development Division

                   B-277486

                   August 19, 1997

                   The Honorable Gil Gutknecht
                   The Honorable Kenny Hulshof
                   House of Representatives

                   U.S. farm programs have historically been implemented by the U.S.
                   Department of Agriculture (USDA) through offices located in the nation’s
                   agricultural counties. Two recent acts have significantly affected the
                   nature of operations in these county offices. The Federal Crop Insurance
                   Reform and Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act of 1994 (P.L.
                   103-354, Oct. 13, 1994) directed the Secretary of Agriculture to streamline
                   departmental operations by consolidating county offices and merging
                   agricultural credit with other farm program activities. In 1996, the Federal
                   Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act (P.L. 104-127, Apr. 4,
                   1996) fundamentally changed the federal government’s role in supporting
                   agriculture and offered the opportunity to reduce county office workload.

                   Under the 1996 act, annual calculations of acreage devoted to agriculture
                   and associated payments to farmers were discontinued and replaced by
                   7-year production flexibility contracts that provide annual payments to
                   farmers through 2002. USDA and the Office of Management and Budget
                   projected that workload and staffing in the county offices, operated since
                   1994 by USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), would decline because of these
                   changes. As a result, the Office of Management and Budget has proposed
                   reducing FSA’s county office staff, formerly part of USDA’s Agricultural
                   Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), by more than 50 percent,
                   from 11,729 employees in 1997 to 4,879 by 2002.

                   Concerned that the workload in county offices did not decrease as a result
                   of the 1996 act and that the proposed future reductions in county office
                   staffing would adversely affect FSA’s delivery of federal agriculture
                   programs, you asked us to review the impact of the 1996 act on county
                   office workload.


                   Because of the limited availability of the Farm Service Agency’s fiscal year
Results in Brief   1997 actual workload data and changes in the U.S. Department of
                   Agriculture’s program and organizational structure resulting from the 1994
                   act, it is not possible to determine the impact of the 1996 act on the
                   workload of the Farm Service Agency’s county offices. The agency’s
                   workload system reflects workload data at the end of the fiscal year in




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             which the work was performed. However, because only 6 months of data
             were available for fiscal year 1997 at the time of our review, we could not
             measure the impact of the 1996 act on county office workload.
             Furthermore, the 1994 act generated a number of changes affecting the
             agency’s staffing and responsibilities. Because these changes were being
             implemented at the same time as the changes directed by the 1996 act, it is
             not possible to isolate the impact of either set of changes on the resulting
             workload. The 1994 changes include the addition of responsibilities for
             agricultural credit and crop insurance programs and changes to the
             Department’s county office structure.

             At the 16 county offices we visited, county executive directors believed
             that the overall workload per employee has increased since the passage of
             the 1994 act. They stated, however, that a number of factors have affected
             staffing and workload during this period and that the role of the 1996 act
             on the perceived workload increases is indeterminable. Because of the
             absence of a full year of 1997 data and additional issues identified at the
             county office level, we cannot confirm the county executive directors’
             observations or isolate the impact of the 1996 act on any workload
             changes that may have occurred in these offices.

             While the results of our work concerning the impact of the 1996 act on
             workload levels are inconclusive, available information generally confirms
             the observations of the agency’s budget officials that each county office
             requires about 2 staff years to handle the basic administrative functions
             associated with keeping the office open and functioning during the day. In
             this connection, about 350 of the existing 2,440 county offices have three
             or fewer employees. It will be extremely difficult for these small offices to
             experience further staff reductions and still remain viable operations.
             Accordingly, unless additional county offices are closed, any future staff
             reductions will probably be concentrated in the larger offices, which,
             unlike smaller offices, allocate a higher proportion of their total costs for
             service to farmers than to overhead.


             USDA  has delivered farm programs through county offices since 1933. At
Background   that time, to serve more than 6 million farmers, ASCS had a county office in
             nearly all of the 3,100 agricultural counties in the United States. These
             county offices were managed by a county executive director hired by a
             committee of locally elected farmers. The director supervised employees
             who administered commodity programs for crops such as wheat, feed




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grains, cotton, rice, tobacco, and peanuts; conservation programs, such as
the Conservation Reserve Program; and emergency assistance.

As the number of farms in the United States has declined to the current
level of about 1.9 million and transportation and communications have
improved, USDA and the Congress have at various times attempted to
reduce the number of county offices or reduce county office staffing. The
1994 act was the latest such effort. Under the 1994 act, FSA was created by
merging the staffs of the former ASCS and part of the former Farmers Home
Administration. Many of the newly formed FSA offices continue to be
managed by a county executive director hired by a committee of locally
elected farmers. The former ASCS’ staff was reduced from 13,432 in 1995 to
11,729 in 1997, while about 2,200 former Farmers Home Administration
employees were assigned to FSA’s county offices to help administer
agricultural credit programs.

The 1996 act significantly changed USDA’s administrative requirements for
the commodity programs. From the 1930s through 1996, USDA provided
annual payments—more recently called deficiency payments—to
participating farmers under federal commodity programs. These payments
were based on annual calculations involving historical acreage devoted to
agricultural production, market prices for crops, and support prices set by
the Congress and the Secretary of Agriculture. Participation in the
commodity programs was limited to farmers who agreed annually to limit
production in order to receive deficiency payments. This annual
requirement no longer exists.

Under the new program, any one whose farm had a recorded planting
history for wheat, feed grains, cotton, and rice in any single year from 1991
to 1995 could sign a production flexibility contract. Those who signed
these contracts in 1996 are generally eligible to receive annual payments
through 2002, regardless of the crop planted. Although signing up for the
program was to be a one-time event, changes in farming operations may
require participants to modify their contracts. For example, USDA’s annual
payments to farms that are leased are normally shared between the farmer
and the landowner. Because many leases are for only 1 year, these
contracts will need to be revised annually to reflect current lease
agreements. In addition, land comes out of the Conservation Reserve
Program annually, and this land can be signed up in the new program.

In carrying out their program management responsibilities, county office
staff perform a variety of tasks, including informing farmers of available



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programs and their requirements; signing up producers to participate in
the programs; and maintaining basic information on program participants
in their county, including the names and addresses of producers, the tracts
they farm, the programs they participate in, and the payments they receive.
While the 1996 act has reduced the need for some basic crop information,
other information is still needed to ensure compliance with the
requirements of related farm programs and to make certain that annual
payment limitations to any single individual are not exceeded.

For a number of years, FSA has used its work measurement and workload
systems to capture the work performed in county offices and provide a
basis for projecting county offices’ annual needs for staffing and
administrative funding. To make these projections, FSA selects about
6 percent of its county offices (currently 157 of 2,440 offices) to represent
county offices nationwide. FSA attempts to include in its 6-percent sample
offices representing different farming practices and commodities, as well
as offices of different sizes. At these offices, FSA records the amount of
time staff spend on each of the over 150 different work activities that
define FSA’s workload. FSA applies these statistical data from the 157 work
measurement offices to the workload units reported by all county offices
in order to project staffing needs for each of the 2,440 county offices
nationwide. In recent years, because of directed staff reductions, the
system also has been used as a tool to help distribute staff cuts. The
calculated workload for each county office includes fixed costs, such as
general administration, training, and computer maintenance operations.

USDA’s budget submission for fiscal year 1998 proposes a reduction of 1,850
former ASCS employees from 1997 levels. This proposed reduction is made
up of two components. First, FSA concluded that 850 fewer employees
were needed to handle its projected workload. Second, USDA agreed to
reduce FSA’s staffing by an additional 1,000 employees to meet the budget
reduction targets set forth in the President’s 1998 budget proposal. Beyond
1998, the Office of Management and Budget has proposed cutting former
ASCS employees, now at FSA, by an additional 5,000, down to 4,879
employees by fiscal year 2002.




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                            B-277486




                            Two factors—a limited amount of available data following the
Available Data and          implementation of the 1996 act and other changes triggered by the 1994
Changes Resulting           act—make it difficult to isolate and assess the effects of the 1996 act on
From the 1994 Act           workload levels in county offices.

Make It Difficult to
Provide a Clear
Picture of Changes in
Workload
Available Data Do Not       FSA’s work measurement and workload systems provide the agency with a
Provide Sufficient          management tool for determining workload distribution and resource
Information to Assess the   staffing needs. Workload data are captured at the end of the fiscal year.
                            Our efforts to measure the impact of the 1996 act were hamstrung by the
Impact of the 1996 Act      lack of availability of a full year’s workload data following the act’s
                            implementation. To measure this impact, we would need to compare the
                            data for a full year prior to and following the act’s implementation. Partial
                            year comparisons are not useful because farm program activities are not
                            always implemented at the same time each year. As of June 1997, only 6
                            months of data were available on FSA’s workload following the
                            implementation of the 1996 act.


Changes Other Than the      A number of factors triggered by the 1994 act have also affected workload
1996 Act Affect FSA’s       levels in county offices, making it difficult to isolate the impact of the 1996
Workload                    act. These changes include the addition of responsibilities for agricultural
                            credit and crop insurance programs and changes to USDA’s county office
                            structure. As a result, county office staff have assumed new
                            responsibilities and undergone organizational and staffing changes at the
                            same time that the 1996 act was reducing responsibilities for traditional
                            commodity programs. Determining the effect of the changes resulting from
                            the 1996 act in this context is not possible.

                            One of the major changes brought about by the 1994 act was the transfer
                            of agricultural credit responsibilities to FSA’s county offices. Even though
                            about 2,200 former Farmers Home Administration employees were added
                            to the county offices to help administer these responsibilities, many FSA
                            employees previously responsible for administering commodity programs
                            are now also administering portions of the agricultural credit programs.
                            These additional responsibilities cloud comparisons of workload before
                            and after the 1996 act.




                            Page 5                                    GAO/RCED-97-214 County Office Workload
                       B-277486




                       The 1994 act also assigned FSA the responsibility for a new catastrophic
                       crop insurance program.1 The Congress directed all FSA offices to make
                       catastrophic insurance available to all farmers. Farmers were required to
                       obtain this insurance—either from FSA or a private insurer—if they wanted
                       to participate in USDA’s commodity programs. Approximately 450,000
                       farmers purchased catastrophic crop insurance from FSA’s county offices
                       in fiscal years 1995 and in 1996. FSA did not receive any additional staff to
                       carry out these responsibilities. Once again, the evolving nature of
                       responsibilities in FSA’s county offices complicates any comparison of
                       workload over this time period.

                       Finally, the reorganization mandated under the 1994 act required the
                       Secretary of Agriculture to streamline the Department’s operations. Within
                       FSA, this effort has been accomplished in fiscal years 1995 through 1997 by
                       reducing staffing in those county offices with the largest number of
                       employees as well as by closing about 150 county offices and transferring
                       the responsibilities of these offices to other county offices. These changes
                       make it difficult to determine the impact of the 1996 act on county office
                       workload.


                       Lacking a clear picture of workload changes from the existing national
County Executive       workload measurement system, we visited 16 county offices to get a
Directors Believe      first-hand impression of workload levels and any recent changes in these
Workload Per           levels. (App. I provides descriptive information on these county offices.)
                       The 16 county executive directors told us that while some aspects of their
Employee Has           offices’ work have decreased since the passage of the 1996 act, their
Increased Since 1994   offices have also taken on new responsibilities. These additions, coupled
                       with reductions in the staff formerly dedicated to administering
                       commodity-related programs, have resulted in increasing the per person
                       volume of work for the remaining staff.

                       County executive directors acknowledged that the time spent on specific
                       activities for the commodity programs—both enrolling farmers in the
                       programs and ensuring compliance with the program’s requirements—has
                       decreased since the passage of the 1996 act. This decrease has occurred
                       because the new production flexibility contracts require less information
                       from farmers and less oversight by county office staff than did the
                       commodity programs. However, the directors believed that this decrease


                       1
                        The 1996 act subsequently directed the Secretary of Agriculture to phase out this responsibility for the
                       federal government as the private sector demonstrated sufficient capacity for delivering this line of
                       crop insurance.



                       Page 6                                                  GAO/RCED-97-214 County Office Workload
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was largely offset by increases in the number of contracts needed to be
completed because of the increased level of participation in the program.

County executive directors offered a number of observations to support
their view that workload per person has increased overall. First, they
pointed out that the initial enrollment for production flexibility contracts
in 1996 doubled the number of participants from those previously
participating in the commodity programs from 3 million to 6 million. The
enrollments were a one-time event that will not be repeated, except for
land leaving the Conservation Reserve Program. However, a certain
proportion of farmers will have to amend their contracts periodically.
Amendments are necessary when changes are made to (1) farm
ownership, (2) leasing relationships, or (3) payment provisions. The
volume of work associated with these changes in 1997 and beyond will be
less than the work associated with the initial enrollments. However,
because only 6 months of data for fiscal year 1997 are available, we do not
have a basis for assessing the full impact on the workload for 1997 and
beyond.

Second, the directors stated that the increased level of participation has
resulted in a higher volume of work associated with ancillary
recordkeeping activities, such as recording changes in farm ownership. As
with the volume of work associated with amending the contracts, we
cannot determine the amount of work that will be required for these
ancillary activities in 1997 and beyond.

Third, in addition to the changes brought about by the production
flexibility contracts, other programs—conservation, crop insurance, and
agricultural credit—have also contributed to changes in county office
workload since 1994, according to the 16 county executive directors. For
example, in the seven county offices that did not receive additional staff to
administer agricultural credit programs, existing staff had to assume some
responsibility for these programs in addition to their other duties. These
responsibilities include accepting applications for direct farm loans and
servicing these loans.

Fourth, directors at two county offices pointed out that their county was
assigned workload responsibilities from other county offices that were
closed as a result of the 1994 act.

Concurrent with changes in the work activities, county executive directors
told us that they experienced decreases in the number of staff available



Page 7                                   GAO/RCED-97-214 County Office Workload
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                        and trained to process commodity-related program requirements. In this
                        connection, staff formerly dedicated to administering the
                        commodity-related programs were reduced in 10 of the 16 county offices
                        we visited by a total of 19 staff years—from 78 to 59. Overall, however, the
                        total staffing at the 16 offices we visited increased from 105 in fiscal year
                        1995 to 115 in fiscal year 1997. This increase resulted from the addition of
                        29 former Farmers Home Administration employees, who are primarily
                        responsible for administering agricultural credit activities.

                        Because of the absence of a full year of 1997 data and additional issues
                        identified at the county office level, we cannot confirm the county
                        executive directors’ observations or isolate the impact of the 1996 act on
                        any workload changes that may have occurred in these offices.


                        Regardless of its size, each of FSA’s 2,440 county offices requires a certain
Fixed Administrative    fixed amount of time and resources to carry out basic office functions and
Costs in FSA’s County   train staff to administer FSA’s programs. FSA budget officials estimated that
Office Structure Will   1.3 staff years per office are needed to carry out the basic administrative
                        duties for keeping the office open. These duties include activities such as
Significantly Affect    obtaining and managing office space, paying utilities, and processing
Any Future              paperwork related to payroll. Additional time is needed to train staff on
                        the specific characteristics of program operations so that they can
Reductions in County    effectively serve participating farmers. In total, these fixed costs may
Office Staffing         represent almost 40 percent of county offices’ total workload. Our analysis
                        of USDA’s workload data produced a similar outcome. The data indicated
                        that about 2 staff years of effort per office is being devoted to the activities
                        associated with keeping the office open and functioning.

                        USDA’s  previous reductions in county office staffing have been achieved
                        primarily by reducing staff at county offices with more than three
                        employees and by closing or consolidating smaller county offices. For
                        example, since 1994, FSA has closed 150 offices, most with three or fewer
                        staff. FSA also reduced staff in about 1,400 other county offices. FSA has
                        about 350 county offices with three or fewer staff. USDA has not indicated
                        whether it would achieve future staff reductions by closing county offices
                        and/or reducing the number of staff in the remaining offices.

                        Because county offices need a minimum of two staff in order to remain in
                        operation, FSA will find it extremely difficult to reduce staff further in its
                        smaller offices. Accordingly, unless additional offices are closed, any
                        future staff reductions will probably have to be concentrated in the larger



                        Page 8                                     GAO/RCED-97-214 County Office Workload
                  B-277486




                  county offices. Because a lower percentage of staff time in these larger
                  offices is devoted to performing basic administrative functions, a greater
                  proportion is available to provide service to farmers. Concentrating
                  additional staff cuts in these offices therefore runs the risk of diminishing
                  the quality of service to the large number of farmers served by these
                  offices.

                  USDA is attempting to reduce the impact of future staff reductions on its
                  delivery of services to farmers by changing its organizational structure and
                  by considering the use of different methods for delivering program
                  services. In this connection, the Department has directed its county-based
                  agencies2 to examine their office structure at every level—headquarters,
                  regional, state, and county—and develop recommendations for
                  improvements in efficiency. USDA has not established a target date for
                  completing this review.


                  We provided copies of a draft of this report to the Department’s Farm
Agency Comments   Service Agency for its review and comment. We met with agency officials,
                  including the Associate Administrator. FSA generally concurred with the
                  results of our review, except for the draft report’s discussion of the
                  capabilities of the agency’s work measurement and workload systems. On
                  the basis of their comments, we revised this discussion to better highlight
                  the key difficulty specifically associated with using data in FSA’s systems to
                  examine the change in workload following the implementation of the 1996
                  act. This difficulty was the unavailability of a complete year of data
                  following the act. We also made a number of technical clarifications
                  throughout the report.


                  To examine the changes in workload before and after the implementation
Scope and         of the 1996 act, we reviewed USDA’s national data on workload and budget
Methodology       for fiscal year 1995 through March 31, 1997. We met with USDA
                  headquarters, state, and county officials to obtain their views on the
                  impact of the 1996 act on county office workload. We also examined the
                  legislative history of the 1994 and 1996 acts.

                  To determine workload changes at the county office level, we visited 16
                  county offices. These offices were chosen because they had been among
                  the 53 county offices used to measure workload since 1995 and were

                  2
                  In addition to FSA, these agencies include the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Rural
                  Development Agency.



                  Page 9                                               GAO/RCED-97-214 County Office Workload
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located in areas that had different crop and farm activities. The offices we
visited were located in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Georgia,
Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota,
Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. In these county
offices, we met with the county executive director and discussed the
changes in staffing and workload since 1995, including the details
supporting reported workload information. Furthermore, in five other
county offices in Georgia, Missouri, Texas, and Virginia, and in state
offices in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky,
Minnesota, Missouri, and Virginia, we obtained additional views on the
impact of the 1996 act on county office workload.

Because the offices we visited were not selected to constitute a
statistically representative sample, we cannot generalize our findings at
these county offices to other FSA county offices. Furthermore, we did not
analyze the efficiency of county office operations to determine if staffing
levels were appropriate. Finally, we did not analyze the quality of services
provided before and after the 1996 act.

We conducted our work from February 1997 through August 1997 in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.


We are sending copies of this report to the Chairmen, Senate Committee
on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and House Committee on
Agriculture; other interested congressional committees; the Secretary of
Agriculture; and the Director, the Office of Management and Budget. We
will also make copies available to others on request.

Please call me at (202) 512-5138 if you or your staff have any questions
about this report. Major contributors to this report are listed in appendix
II.




Robert A. Robinson
Director, Food and
  Agriculture Issues




Page 10                                  GAO/RCED-97-214 County Office Workload
Page 11   GAO/RCED-97-214 County Office Workload
Contents



Letter                                                                                                1


Appendix I                                                                                           14

Profile of the 16
County Offices Visited
Appendix II                                                                                          16

Major Contributors to
This Report
Table                    Table I.1: Information on the 16 County Offices Visited                     15


Figure                   Figure I.1: Location of County Offices Visited                              14




                         Abbreviations

                         USDA       U.S. Department of Agriculture
                         FSA        Farm Service Agency
                         ASCS       Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service
                         FmHA       Farmers Home Administration


                         Page 12                                  GAO/RCED-97-214 County Office Workload
Page 13   GAO/RCED-97-214 County Office Workload
Appendix I

Profile of the 16 County Offices Visited


                                                  This appendix provides information on the county offices we visited to
                                                  determine workload changes at the county office level. Figure I.1 shows
                                                  the location of these offices as well as the other county and state offices
                                                  we visited. Table I.1 shows the number of employees in each office in 1995
                                                  and 1997, including employees with the former Agricultural Stabilization
                                                  and Conservation Service (ASCS) and former Farmers Home
                                                  Administration (FmHA); the types of farm activities carried out in the
                                                  county; and the number of farms associated with these offices according
                                                  to the 1992 Census.


Figure I.1: Location of County Offices Visited




                    16 case study counties
                    Additional counties visited
                    State offices visited




                                                  Page 14                                 GAO/RCED-97-214 County Office Workload
                                         Appendix I
                                         Profile of the 16 County Offices Visited




Table I.1: Information on the 16 County Offices Visited
                                  Number of permanent employees
                                                                               Responsible                                      Number of
                            1995                         1997                  for additional      Principal                   farms (1992
County office            Former ASCSa    Former ASCSa Former FmHAb             County              commodities                    Census)c
Baldwin, Alabama                     4                    4                  0 Shared              Soybeans, corn,                         941
                                                                               management          livestock
Graham, Arizona                      4                    4                  0 Yes                 Livestock, cotton                       424
Lonoke, Arkansas                     8                    7                  4 No                  Rice, wheat                             836
Riverside, California                5                    5                  3 Yes                 Fruits and                         10,076
                                                                                                   vegetables, wheat,
                                                                                                   cotton
Dodge, Georgia                       5                    5                  0 No                  Peanuts, corn,                          394
                                                                                                   livestock
Henry, Indiana                       6                    4                  4 No                  Corn, soybeans                          848
Guthrie, Iowa                        8                    6                  4 No                  Corn, soybeans,                         946
                                                                                                   livestock
Washington, Kansas                   9                    8                  3 No                  Wheat, feed                             852
                                                                                                   grains, livestock
Bourbon, Kentucky                    4                    4                  0 Yes                 Tobacco, corn                          1,683
Morehouse, Louisiana                 7                    5                  3 No                  Cotton, soybeans                        413
Kalamazoo, Michigan                  6                    4                  0 No                  Corn, wheat                             745
Crow Wing, Minnesota                 4                    3                  0 Yes                 Livestock, dairy                       1,104
Callaway, Missouri                   5                    5                  2 No                  Feed grains,                           1,300
                                                                                                   livestock
Barnes, North Dakota                11                    8                  2 No                  Wheat, sunflower                        839
Dyer, Tennessee                     10                    7                  0 No                  Livestock,                              510
                                                                                                   soybeans
Trempealeau, Wisconsin               9                    7                  4 No                  Dairy, corn                            1,424
Total                              105                   86                 29 4 of 15,
                                                                               1 shared
                                         a
                                         Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service.
                                         b
                                             Farmers Home Administration.
                                         c
                                          For those county offices that administer programs to another county, this column includes the
                                         number of farms from both counties.




                                         Page 15                                                GAO/RCED-97-214 County Office Workload
Appendix II

Major Contributors to This Report


               Ronald E. Maxon, Jr., Assistant Director
               Fred Light
               Jerry Hall
               Paul Pansini
               Stuart Ryba
               Carol Herrnstadt Shulman
               Marge Vallazza




(150072)       Page 16                                    GAO/RCED-97-214 County Office Workload
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