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Social, Fiscal Ramifications Concern Commissioners With Fewer Seats To Be On Smoky Mountain Center’s Board

By Jesse Wood

Feb. 7, 2013. Commissioner Billy Kennedy spoke fervently about a statute that will limit county representation on the boards of certain local management entities in the state at Tuesday’s Watauga County Board of Commissioners meeting. 

LMEs are responsible for managing, coordinating, facilitating and monitoring mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse services. The LME at work in the High Country is Smoky Mountain Center, which covers 15 counties including Ashe, Avery and Watauga.

Currently, Smoky Mountain Center Board of Directors has 30 members – 15 commissioners from each county and 15 at-large members selected by the appointed commissioners. That will change by October if Senate Bill 191, which was ratified last summer, isn’t amended or no exemption is granted.

The bill calls for the reorganization of the composition of the board and reduces the maximum size of LME boards to 21 members, which according to Kennedy will prevent each of the 15 county governments from having a commissioner on the board because of other specifics described below.

In the past, nearly every county appointed a commissioner to the board, and in turn those commissioners appointed at-large members with the only requirements being that two of those at-large individuals have “financial expertise,” one has “management or business expertise” and another represents the “interests of children,” according to Mark Botts, an associate professor at the UNC School of Government, on Coates’ Canons: NC Local Government Law Blog.

Now, the new law requires a total of 11 of the voting members to have specific backgrounds (one of which is a county commissioner) instead of four, which with no overlapping – for example, a mental health expert who also happens to be a county commissioner can cover two of the requirements with one body – would mean that only nine seats are available for county commissioners.

For an LME such as Western Highlands Network, which has an eight-county coverage area, the concern for a lack of commissioner representation doesn’t exist because eight commissioners and the other required “specialists” fall within the 21-member board maximum.

But for the 15-county coverage area of Smoky Mountain Center, there will not be enough seats at the board for every county to have a seat at the table in October – unless several commissioners are specialists in a variety of areas of health care management.

Another flaw Kennedy said he sees in the legislation is that it would affect rural areas more so than urban areas because an exemption from the compositional requirements exists for boards in coverage areas with a population of more than 1,250,000 people. More people in fewer counties afford more flexibility regarding Senate Bill 191 for those high-density areas.

“There’s a problem I see with a statue that was written at three in the morning. It may not have been thought out too well,” Kennedy quipped, albeit, seriously. “The language leaves a little bit to be desired.”

While Smoky Mountain Center board members are scrambling to get the attention of state legislators for an exemption or waiver, Kennedy mentioned that an ad hoc committee has formed to figure out which commissioners are going to get a seat at the table and who will not. And while the process ensures participation from each county, every county won’t be represented on the new Smoky Mountain board.

“If the statute is not changed, it’s going to be rough. It will be hard for county commissioners to sit there and say who doesn’t get a say on this $150 million a year that is mental health services that are crucial,” Kennedy said. “If Smoky doesn’t provide it … by state law, the county will have to pick it up.

“We need to make it known that without some changes in the statue, we will very likely be one of the counties cut of from this board. With such a financial responsibility to this board – not to mention the mental health in our county – I think it’s really important that a county commissioner be on this board.”

While the current Smoky Mountain board has drafted a simple resolution to give to state legislators that essentially consists of one sentence stating that “one commissioner from each county is required to be on the board,” the Watauga County Board of Commissioners directed the County Manager Deron Geouque to draft its own resolution and then contact Rep. Jonathan Jordan and Sen. Dan Soucek for assistance in the General Assembly in Raleigh.

Kennedy added that he understands the compositional board requirements for experts in particular areas such as mental health, medical insurance, hospital management and so forth  – skills that county commissioners generally don’t have – will help the board function, but he added that its imperative that for every county to be represented because of the financial and social ramifications at stake on the local level.

While the bill may have been passed with good intentions and perhaps not thought out all the way through, Chairman Nathan Miller, who served on Smoky Mountain’s board prior to Kennedy, voiced his thoughts at the commissioners meeting that something else was at play:

“It’s my belief and the belief of other county commissioners on the board that the LMEs, their lobbyists down in Raleigh, are pushing to get counties off the board.”

LME boards must comply with the requirements of the bill by Oct. 1. If the requirements are not fulfilled, the Secretary of Health and Human Services Aldona Wos will appoint those unrepresented categories.

Professor Botts, Sen. Soucek and the CEO for Smoky Mountain Center Brian Ingraham didn’t return phone calls, emails on Thursday. Any comments obtained will be added.