S.C. consumer affairs agency struggling with added work, budget cuts
After years of punishing budget cuts, South Carolina’s Department of Consumer Affairs is struggling to meet the needs of residents looking for advice about identity theft, in the wake of the state’s hacking scandal.
“We’re trying to be creative and do the best that we can,” said agency Director Carri Grube Lybarker. “We may fall short.”
“We don’t have the funding to be able to add staff,” she said.
Consumer Affairs is the go-to agency for people with consumer complaints, and it plays a role in regulating mortgage brokers, insurance companies, pawn shops and other businesses.
The agency has seen its state funding slashed from more than $2.2 million in the 2008-09 budget to less than $700,000 today, leaving it with less than half the staff it used to have.
“We had a mortgage fraud hotline at one point and we had to stop that,” said Lybarker. “We have several programs that we suspended or scaled back.”
The agency stopped publishing its “buyer beware” list, detailing companies with unresolved consumer complaints, three years ago due to lack of funding. The agency’s number of employees dropped from 75 in 2008 to 32 this year, and the agency moved its office and turned in leased cars in order to save money.
At a time when Consumer Affairs has been scaling back services, the hacking incident has created large new demands on the agency. After computer hackers stole an estimated 3.8 million Social Security numbers and other taxpayer information from Department of Revenue in October, the phones at the Department of Consumer Affairs started lighting up.
The agency, which normally gets about 500 phone calls weekly from consumers, received more than 2,200 calls related to the data breach in one week — and those were just the calls that got through.
“The Department of Consumer Affairs is a very important department, particularly in light of the identity theft from the Department of Revenue,” said Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, who is a vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which decides budget matters in the House.
“Going forward, there’s going to be a greater strain on the agency, we can all see that, and as long as they can provide a compelling reason for more funding I’ll support that,” he said.
Limehouse also said many state agencies faced deep budget cuts following the 2007-2009 recession, and South Carolina doesn’t have the money to pay for everything the government might hope to do.
“Unlike the federal government, we can’t print money, and we balance our budget every year,” said Limehouse. “We don’t take any pleasure in cutting state government, but we need to live within our means.”
More than 80 percent of South Carolina’s general-fund budget is spent on education, health care and public safety programs. Budget cutting in recent years fell hard upon agencies like Consumer Affairs, as lawmakers attempted to minimize already-deep cuts to basics like education and health care.
“Every year they find ways to take money from consumer affairs,” said Sen. Harold Ford, D-Charleston. “I don’t know how they can operate.”
Rob Godfrey, spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley, noted that the governor’s 2012-13 budget increased funding for the agency.
“We proposed additional funding for Consumer Affairs, a great department that does exceptional work and a department with which we work well, in last year’s executive budget, and we’re in the process of drafting this year’s executive budget that will be rolled out ahead of the legislative session,” Godfrey said.
In the current budget, approved this year, state funding for Consumer Affairs rose from $565,746 to $697,382. It was the agency’s first increase since 2007, when state support for the agency peaked at more than $2.2 million.
The agency also relies upon fees from industries the agency regulates. State funding used to account for more than half the agency’s budget, and now accounts for less than a quarter.
Lybarker said new demands on the agency related to the hacking incident are likely to be an ongoing challenge.
“For a short-term stint, a week, we can handle it,” Lybarker said. “We think the (data) breach is going to be a long-term issue.”
Consumers whose Social Security numbers may be in the hands of overseas hackers could potentially face identity-theft attempts years from now. The state is paying for one year of free credit report monitoring, and Consumer Affairs has been helping residents understand options such as putting a security freeze on their credit reports.
“If they (who create the state’s spending plans) weren’t aware of our importance to the state before, hopefully this will come up in the next budget cycle,” Lybarker said.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.