Deluxe Data Systems of Milwaukee is ahead schedule on its effort to overhaul the delivery of benefits in three counties in New Jersey.

The three populous counties - Camden, Hudson, and Essex - signed a five- year electronic benefits transfer processing contract with Deluxe in January 1993. The system, called Families First, was scheduled to be fully rolled out by the end of the year.

Deluxe officials now say the program will be fully operational in all three counties by May 1. At that time, New Jersey's experimental EBT project will boast 110,000 cardholders and 2,600 merchants.

Camden County, located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, was first to be converted, early last year. Essex County, which includes Newark and its suburbs, went live in October and was fully in use by the end of last year. The conversion of Hudson County, just across the river from Manhattan, began last month and will be completed by May 1.

"New Jersey is taking a look at these three counties, and will then decide whether to go forward with a full state roll-out," said Tom McLaughlin, vice president of government services for Deluxe, who emphasized that its contract is for only the three counties.

EBT is a process in which government benefits like welfare checks and food stamps are delivered through automated teller machines and point of sale terminals.

New Jersey, like many other states including Maryland, Texas, and New Mexico, is exploring EBT as a way to reduce fraud and cut administrative expenses.

According to 1993 data released by U.S. government sources, 7.7% of New Jersey's households receive food stamps. Public aid recipients make up 6.1% of New Jersey's population.

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National Transaction Network Inc. is also getting involved in New Jersey's EBT project.

The Hudson, Mass.-based provider of retail payment systems installed an EBT system in 16 Twin County Supermarkets throughout the state. The system allows these supermarkets to handle EBT transactions without having to use a separate terminal.

"The architecture of our system accommodates the full range of payment options a supermarket may want to deploy, including credit, debit, check authorization, and EBT," said Scott S. Rich, vice president of marketing at the network.

NTN works closely with Deluxe Data, the processor for New Jersey's EBT program, to ensure that the software used by the retailer conforms to the host system.

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