SAN FRANCISCO - The State of California has signed a long-awaited contract with Citigroup Inc. for the delivery of food stamps and public assistance benefits through an electronic benefits transfer system.

With the contract signed late last week, Alameda County in the San Francisco Bay Area - the first county that will use Citigroup's system - can start preparing to issue the electronic cards to be used in the system, which is slated to go into effect June 1, 2002.

Community activist groups have pressured California to ensure that problems encountered by public assistance recipients in other states, particularly New York, will not be repeated.

One concern is that certain details of the agreement, such as the number and locations of automated teller machines included in the EBT network, are still to be decided, said Debra Garcia, a policy analyst with the Consumers Union's West Coast regional office.

Citigroup, which was the only bidder on the contract, will provide and maintain an EBT system for most counties.

"This has been a long time in coming," Ms. Garcia said. "We're hoping the state will hold Citicorp to the standards" outlined in its request for a proposal for the contract.

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