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Jackson to merge health and social services departments

Jackson County will pursue a plan to consolidate its health and social services departments following a special-called commissioners meeting held Thursday, Nov. 16.

“I think most people day-to-day wouldn’t even know the consolidation happened,” said Commissioner Ron Mau, who has been encouraging the board to investigate this option since he was sworn in December 2016. “I’m really looking more at the upper-level communication with the county manager and the directors. That’s what I’m focused on.”

Mau voted with fellow Republican commissioners Charles Elders and Mickey Luker in favor of consolidation, with Democratic commissioners Boyce Deitz and Chairman Brian McMahan opposed. A public hearing is required before taking further action, with commissioners deciding Nov. 20 to schedule it for 5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 29.

A state law passed in 2012 gave counties more freedom to consolidate various departments, allowing them to combine the health department with one or more human services departments with an eye to increasing efficiency and communication in county government. So far, 22 counties — including Haywood, Swain and Buncombe — have taken advantage of this option.



Support for pursuing consolidation in Jackson hasn’t been unanimous.

Last week’s meeting was a follow-up from a joint session held in March during which commissioners and members of the health and social services boards heard what representatives of the University of North Carolina School of Government had to say about options granted under the 2012 law. During that meeting, multiple board members spoke to assert their belief that the departments are run well as they are, also expressing skepticism that the effort of a big reorganization would ultimately yield any real benefit.

“It looks like we’re dealing with a very complex solution looking for a problem, and I guess I’m not sure what it is we’re trying to solve with this complex solution,” Ron Fisher, vice chairman of the health board, said during the March meeting. “Maybe we have the cart before the horse and we should talk about what the problems are we are trying to resolve.”

That’s a perspective that Deitz agreed within his comments Thursday evening.

“These two departments can be better than what they are. These five commissioners can be better than what we are. We all need to always try every day to look at ourselves, re-evaluate ourselves and do better,” he said.

However, he said, things have been going well in the health and social service departments — the commissioners’ examination of the issue over the past year hasn’t turned up any alarming issue in need of fixing.

“I think we would be doing ourselves an injustice to change something after looking this closely and seeing nothing that really calls for that change,” he said.

McMahan also supported keeping the structure in place.

“Where I work at Balsam (Mountain Preserve), they decided one time they were going to buy all of us a new pair of shoes to wear for work. They wanted everybody to be the same,” he said. “So they ordered a pair of shoes through this one company, and guess what? Some people loved them and some people hated them.”

The point is, he said, sometimes what fits one person — or one county — doesn’t work for another.

“When you look at the full picture and the scope of it, I’m proud to say that Jackson County’s done a tremendous job,” McMahan said. “I support keeping it the same.”

At the beginning of the meeting, retired Department of Social Services employee and Jackson County resident Jennifer Montsinger gave public comment to a similar effect.

“I have observed both mediocre and high-quality services, and I must tell you that Jackson County health and DSS services far exceed the norm,” she said.

“After a lengthy discussion (in March), each of you expressed the belief that what we had in place was working well for us. You complimented each of the boards for doing their jobs so consistently and for being proactive at identifying problems and finding solutions,” she continued. “Why are we back here tonight?”


Working to streamline

Mau stressed that his interest in consolidation didn’t stem from concern about anything currently happening in county government, or in the boards governing the two departments in question.

“It’s not about anything being wrong right now,” he said in a follow-up interview. “It’s about providing an opportunity for improvements to be made and looking long-term at issues that could come up. Hopefully this change will provide a structure that those issues don’t arise.”

Currently, the directors of health and social services report directly to their governing boards, not to the county manager. Mau believes that creating a consolidated agency with a leader who reports directly to the county manager would create a “cleaner, more accountable and transparent line of communication.”

He also envisions consolidation as yielding efficiencies that could result in a cost savings. Support staff who handle IT, accounting and legal issues for the two entities could be used to support both arms of a consolidated department, Mau said, potentially reducing the number of employee hours needed.

While consolidation can yield budget savings, counties shouldn’t assume that’s what will happen, University of North Carolina School of Government presenters told commissioners in March.

Mau believes that cost savings are likely, however, and he’s also of the opinion that reorganization will, over time, end up improving the services offered.

“Everybody always talks about trying to do things better and improving processes, and I think it removes a constraint,” he said.

Elders, who sits on the health board, told commissioners that his mind is not made up but that he believes the consolidation concept warrants more consideration.

“I have never advocated abolishing any board,” Elders said. “I think we need to research this more for the convenience. The county is growing. I don’t think we’ve done enough homework on it.”

Elders continued to say that his interest in exploring a consolidated department originated from complaints he’d heard from those in the construction industry. Getting the necessary permits for construction projects requires visits to multiple departments, and with the new security system in place at the Jackson County Justice Center, contractors have found themselves having to empty all the nails, hammers and tools from their pockets every time they need to run inside.

“My perspective on that was we could eliminate and get some of this all under one roof and a cross-trained person to answer questions,” Elders said.

The departments involved in that issue include health, planning and permitting and code enforcement, and commissioners have already decided to design renovation of the health department building so that there will be space for a one-stop permitting shop. Such a one-stop shop would not involve anybody from DSS.

“You’ve been a champion for that one-stop permitting,” McMahan replied to Elders. “I appreciate your efforts in leading that, and that’s something that’s a whole separate issue from this.”

“What Mr. Elders is asking for, and he has been for several years, is not going to have anything to do with putting these two boards together,” Deitz agreed.


Looking ahead

Deitz made a motion that commissioners leave the departmental structure unchanged, with he and McMahan voting in favor and Mau, Luker and Elders voting opposed. Mau then made a motion that commissioners pursue restructuring the departments.

He, Luker and Elders voted to pursue this option, with McMahan and Deitz opposed.

During a Nov. 20 meeting the following week, commissioners decided to hold a public hearing on the issue at 5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 29, prior to the regular meeting that will start at 6 p.m. It’s possible commissioners could vote on the issue that same night, depending on how work session discussions go between now and then.

“There’s going to have to be some further conversations about the structure and things like that,” County Manager Don Adams told commissioners Nov. 20. “You may be ready depending on the December and January work sessions. We’ll have to work out some details.”

If the plan is approved, the social services and health departments would merge into a single department, with a consolidated health and human services board overseeing them and reporting to the county commissioners. The manager would appoint the department’s director with advice and consent from the board.

However, commissioners will still have plenty of decisions to make as they nail down the particulars of the new department. For instance, Jackson County currently has a director of social services and a director of health — would one of those people be promoted to direct the consolidated department, or would there continue to be a health director and a social services director, with the director of the consolidated department hired as an additional employee?

How would the merging to the existing DSS and health boards be handled, and what measures would need to be taken to ensure that the level of expertise and insight currently present on those boards remains?

And, would the consolidation of these departments bring with it any physical changes? Currently, the DSS building is on the other side of town from the health building. Commissioners are already planning a renovation of the health building, but those plans don’t include any effort to physically combine the DSS and health departments.

Getting the consolidation rolling will take plenty of research and plenty of discussion, but Mau believes that, if approved, it could be implemented by the end of the fiscal year June 30.

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