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Clients Glad Busy Welfare Site Reopens : Panorama City: Arson closed the office in April. To recipients it means the end of long commutes; to staff it's a homecoming.


PANORAMA CITY — Four months after it was nearly destroyed by an arson fire, Los Angeles County's busiest welfare office reopened Monday in Panorama City to the general relief of the 41,000 people who depend on it for assistance.

As dirty as its employees said it was and requiring waits as long as its clients complained they were, the nondescript office on Lanark Street was home. For all the grime and all the lines, they missed it.

Martha Lupercio, for one, was thrilled to come back and sit in the familiar--if uncomfortable--plastic chairs. After the April fire, Lupercio and thousands of other San Fernando Valley residents were forced to commute to other facilities for help.

Without a car, Lupercio would often spend 90 minutes riding three buses from her home in North Hollywood to an office in Glendale to pick up checks or see her caseworker.

"Then, I'd spend the whole day waiting and waiting and waiting," said Lupercio, 20.

On Monday, the waits were often just as long as usual, despite the efforts of caseworkers and clerks to keep the lines moving. Facunda Tinajero of North Hills waited seven hours before she was called to the windows at the front of the room.

"We're trying to make sure everyone gets served as quickly as possible," said Bryce Yokomizo, district director for the Department of Public Social Services. "But this is the first day."

Part of the problem, Yokomizo said, was that all of the office's case files were still boxed in temporary quarters across Lanark Street, which is where most of the facility's 300 employees are setting up shop until the old building's renovation is finished in January.

Although the two buildings are across from one another, employees were told to shuttle back and forth all day in a white station wagon to prevent accidents.

The Panorama City office was torched April 13. No suspects have been arrested, and Los Angeles City Fire Department investigators said Monday that they are still looking for leads.

Renovation of the damaged building is expected to cost about $2 million, said Social Services spokeswoman Lois Ruedaflores. Rent on the 30,000-square-foot temporary facility across the street will run about $17,700 a month, she said.

All rent and renovation costs are covered by insurance.

Monday's reopening was relatively fast by the county's standards, since projects can languish in the bureaucracy for years. But a month after the fire, Supervisor Ed Edelman ordered county officials to waste no time getting the facility up and running again.

"I'm very delighted the county has followed through as quickly as they have done to get the facility opened," Edelman said.

Welfare workers were also delighted, happy to return after four months in cramped temporary quarters. Before the fire, Patricia Ahumada and Rosa Castellanos were sick of their aging office. They dreamed of greener pastures and cleaner walls.

But after four months of sharing three phones and one office with 20 other caseworkers, Ahumada was glad to be back.

"No matter how bad it is, it's yours," she said, standing in a hallway illuminated by portable construction lamps.

Added Sonya Belmar, another county worker: "It's great to be home."

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