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Facing Opposition, Watauga’s Republican Commissioners Take Over, Abolish DSS Board Tuesday Night

During the public hearing regarding the budget, nonprofit supporters packed the commissioners board room. Many of these same people stayed around to listen to the hearing and commissioners vote on the abolishment of the local DSS board. Photo by Jesse Wood
During the public hearing regarding the budget, nonprofit supporters packed the commissioners board room. Many of these same people stayed around to show opposition to the abolishment of the local DSS board. Photo by Jesse Wood

By Jesse Wood

May 22, 2013. After listening to public comments from social workers in opposition, the Republican members of the Watauga County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution and voted to abolish and takeover the current county Department of Social Services board and reappoint the five previous members of the DSS board to an advisory board. 

The resolution, which abides by state law, also states that the commissioners “assumes … all powers, responsibilities and duties” of the DSS board.

Leading off the public hearing, Watauga County DSS Director Jim Atkinson questioned whether the commissioners knew exactly what they were getting themselves into and asked the commissioners to name five things DSS does on a daily basis.

Chair Nathan Miller, who initiated the move to abolish DSS, responded that questions are “out-of-order” during public hearings.

Atkinson then handed a thin stack of papers to the commissioners outlining 44 programs that the DSS administers, 30 of which, Atkinson said, were mandated by the state and federal authorities. He said public perception is that “DSS exists to hand out food stamps and take people’s children away.”

“It’s way more complicated than any of that,” Atkinson said, adding that this move would open the door to misuse of authority and inappropriate political influence in the future.

“Certainly not buy you guys,” he said. “[But] you sure don’t want to be the group of commissioners that open that door.”

Atkinson has worked at the department for 30 years, 16 of which as director. He said the prior director led the department for 25 years.

“In 41 years, [the prior director] and I together have had pretty smooth sailing as a department of social services … 41 years without really a problem that needs to be fixed,” Atkinson said. “I don’t know if you guys are prepared to take on 30 additional tasks everyday … I request you not go forward with this resolution and allow DSS board to continue as it has for over 70 years, operating in a nonpartisan and independent way.”

All three Republican commissioners noted the two reasons they favored this move were to have more control of the more than $5-million DSS budget and to be able to fire and hire the director of DSS – as it does with most of the department heads in the county.

This move wouldn’t affect Atkinson because he plans to retire next year. Plus, the commissioners noted that Atkinson and his staff do a wonderful job.

“This has nothing to do with the staff or the current director of DSS who are all exemplary employees like all county employees,” Miller said, adding that this move is to protect the county in the future in case the next director isn’t another upstanding “Jim.”

Commissioner Billy Kennedy, sounding perplexed, said DSS already has a de facto board with two members appointed by the commissioners, two appointed by the N.C. Social Services Commission and those four select a fifth member internally.

“We have control. I don’t understand why we are doing this. I don’t understand. I don’t get it,” Kennedy said. “To bring this closer to political dialogue … just seems crazy to me. These boards offer a buffer in case problems [occur] with DSS.”

When talking about wanting to be able to control the hiring and firing of the DSS director, Miller noted that since the commissioners don’t have control over that currently, it would have to persuade the DSS board to fire a director if one turned out to be the next Dr. David Kafitz, the former superintendent of Watauga County Schools, whose local reputation engulfed in flames during his short tenure at the helm of WCS.

“What about that, if you don’t like the head of DSS, you can’t complain to me. If we cut their budget, you aren’t hurting the director. It’s the people who you are hurting,” Miller said, adding that the position should be filled by elected officials.

Commissioner John Welch, a former school board member who was involved in the hiring of Kafitz, responded to specific remarks from Miller during his talks, “How was the last two DSS directors hired? [By the Watauga County DSS board]. How was the superintendent hired? I’ll answer that – by five elected officials.”

Welch added, “The DSS department is a little more sensitive than the tax collector. This resolution is a change to a problem that doesn’t exist … This makes absolutely no sense to me.”

Commissioner Perry Yates, who said he didn’t want to get involved in the day-to-day operations of DSS, noted that this change was about control over the “money” several times.

“Who answers to the money?” Yates asked, referring to some unknown time in the future when the new director, which would now be hired by the county commissioners, could possibly misuse funds.

Kennedy, sounding even more perplexed, responded, “That’s what we do is control the money.”

$1.8 million of the upcoming DSS budget is funded by the county in its own upcoming budget and has been approved by commissioners.

Atkinson said, “As far as money, you are already in charge of that. All you have to do is vote to approve or not approve [the budget]. What more do you want?”

Miller responded, “I understand that” – as the talk veered in another direction.

During the public hearing, Amy Michael, a social worker at WCS with a background in Virginia’s DSS, said that politics have no business in the DSS and that boards needs to be independent.

“Why fix something that’s not broke?” I am not sure why it has even come up to stick our hand in a pot that doesn’t need to be stirred,” Michael said, adding, in the form of a question, that the commissioners have other responsibilities to worry about.

Annette Ward, a licensed clinical social worker who is not employed with DSS but has collaborated with the department for the past 16 years, said, “The current system functions well.”

She added that the current system, which is now no longer, promotes balance, accountability and integrity.

“Altering the structure to create more control opens the door to corruption and excessive costs to the county,” Ward said, adding that while she appreciates the commissioners attempts to save costs with this move, it “creates much larger costs in the long run.”

She also posed questions to commissioners about what would happen if a family member of a commissioner or a leading official in the community with close ties to the commission were to be investigated by the DSS. Would that investigation be squashed and “swept under the rug?” What if one of the policies enacted by DSS didn’t “look good for a political career?” She also said this move would lead to private information about clients being “brought into the public arena.”

Gail Hawkinson, a retired mental health worker and current volunteer chair of the Watauga County Community Protection Team, said she was “perplexed why we would want to change something that works so well.”

She said the DSS run by commissioners in Charlotte has “such a disconnect from staff and director” – with politics swirling around.

In Watauga, Hawksinson said, “The staff trusts the supervisors who trusts the director who works with the board.”

“I respectfully request you not tear all of this apart,” Hawkinson said.

Welch made a motion that Kennedy seconded to squash the abolishment. It didn’t pass.

In the end, Yates, Blust and Miller voted for the resolution to abolish the DSS board, contingent upon members of the dissolved board being appointed to an advisory board.

Read prior article about this issue here