By Brian Maass and Mark Ackerman
DENVER (CBS4)– A CBS4 Investigation has found that the Great Colorado Payback- a state program aimed at reuniting people with their unclaimed or forgotten money- is plagued by problems that are delaying payments by more than a year, in many cases.
State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who administers the program, conceded the problems revealed in the CBS4 Investigation.
”We absolutely have to fix it, it is a big problem,” said Stapleton during an interview with CBS4. ”We recognize it’s a problem, it has to run more efficiently, it’s not running efficiently.”
CBS4 obtained more than 500 pages of complaints filed in the last year by people attempting to retrieve their money, but with little success.
One person wrote they could never get through by phone to the state treasurer’s office so they redialed 186 times with no success. Another wrote that the payback process has been “glacial and inefficient.” Still another wrote, “this is becoming a joke.” Another citizen trying to retrieve their money from the state treasurer wrote the process was “utterly ridiculous” and calling it “The great Colorado hoax.”
Stapleton said, ”Our complaints have absolutely spiked. We should not have a system that makes people feel frustrated. If someone is waiting a year to get paid that is way too long and we need to fix that. It’s unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable.”
Stapleton was elected treasurer in 2010 and says the program has gone from about 60,000 claims a year to 150,000 claims a year, contributing to the backlog. The payback program returns about $30 million a year and Stapleton says many people are reunited with their assets in a matter of weeks.
Others are waiting well over a year for their assets to be returned. The treasurer blames the delays on a host of issues: an antiquated phone system that cannot handle the volume of inquiries, an outdated computer system and career civil servants who cannot be reassigned.
“Removing people and holding people accountable in the private sector is a lot easier than in government, unfortunately,“ said Stapleton.
The explanations are of little consolation to people like Liz Cohen, who spent 13 months trying to get her money back. She said she was initially told it would take eight to 12 weeks to process her claim. She said it took over two years for her brother to get his Colorado payback funds returned.
“It was awful, it was awful,” recounted Cohen. “To actually claim the funds was a very easy process, to actually start going through the process, it’s like teeth pulling. It got to a point where it would be weeks and months when I would call every single day. I’ve sent hundreds of emails.”
Approximately a year ago, CBS4 found the City of Lakewood, and other government agencies, had money sitting at the state treasurer’s office. Larry Dorr, finance director for Lakewood, said he was initially surprised and excited to learn his city had money waiting to be picked up. Last April, Dorr said Lakewood filled out all the forms to get their money back and was told the process would take 18 to 20 weeks. Eleven months later, he is still waiting.
“It’s been far longer than the 18 to 20 weeks and we are struggling to really understand when we might receive the funds or what we need to do to make sure they ultimately get to Lakewood. We’ve contacted a few folks on the phone and by email and we haven’t gotten any response as of late,“ said Dorr.
He said Lakewood’s money could be used to pay for basketball or volleyball nets or a park bench, “Maybe something has gotten lost in the mail.”
Lakewood isn’t alone. The City of Denver filed a claim for $114,000 in October 2015 and is still waiting. The cash strapped Jefferson County School district filed a claim last spring and is also waiting.
“In a time when school funding is scarce this would be a nice windfall, so it’s a bit disappointing the process seems stalled,” said Jefferson County Spokesperson Diana Wilson.
The logjam with the payback comes at an inopportune time. March is labeled Great Colorado Payback month and TV commercials will begin airing soon, urging people to step up and claim their money.
Stapleton says he hopes the program will have a new, more efficient phone system in the next few months, along with an updated computer system to automate some parts of the refund process. He told CBS4 a new website will appear soon and other fixes are in the works to remedy the problems, including hiring a consultant in February.
He said anyone with complaints about getting their money back can contact him directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 303-866-2441.
“We need the technology and the systems to catch up to that and that process has been slower and more frustrating than I would like it to be.”