By Jesse Wood
Originally published May 15, 2013. At next Tuesday’s Watauga County Board of Commissioners meeting, a public hearing is scheduled to hear citizens’ comments regarding the potential abolishment of the local Department of Social Services board. The public hearing starts at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 21.
At Chair Nathan Miller’s request, County Manager Deron Geouque and staff drafted a resolution to abolish the board and included it in the packet information for the county’s budget retreat that was held in February.
According to state law, the county must notify the public 30 days in advance and hold a public hearing before voting on abolishing the DSS board.
House Bill 438, signed into law last year, grants commissioners authority to abolish the county’s DSS board and assume its powers and duties. Under the bill, it may also create a new consolidated human services agency that includes the department of social services and up to 25 members, according to the state statute.
North Carolina counties administer programs along two primary categories – economic services and social work services. Economic services consist of food stamps, child-care subsidies and employment services on an income basis, according to Aimee Wall on the UNC School of Government NC Local Government Law Blog, while social work services consists of programs assisting people who are at-risk or neglected.
Wall wrote that by abolishing the board of social services, the commissioners most significant responsibility would be to appoint the social services director, which is currently Jim Atkinson.
The commissioners would also establish policies for programs administered by the department.
“There is little room for county boards to engage in programmatic policy-making,” Wall said. “The boards do, however, advise the director and other local officials on social services programs and social conditions in the county … Board members also may inspect confidential county social services records relating to public assistance and services.”
At the retreat, Commissioner Billy Kennedy expressed reservations at the idea of abolishing the board. He mentioned that he received numerous calls opposing this resolution and that the abolishment would burden the county manager’s office.
Ashe County Board of Commissioners faced this issue in January when one of the commissioners motioned to put its local DSS under the authority of Ashe County Manager Pat Mitchell, according to the Jefferson Post. In February, Ashe commissioners voted 1-4 with two of the commissioners mentioning the “heavier burden” and “more responsibility” placed on the manager and commissioners.
Kennedy mentioned the “73 different revenue sources” within DSS and the wealth of experience the current board has dealing with DSS matters. He also mentioned that he was worried about confidentiality of the citizens who utilize DSS services.
Speaking on Wednesday, Commissioner David Blust, who wasn’t familiar enough on the topic to express much of an opinion two months ago, said he was still 50-50 on the matter.
Blust said commissioners should have “more control” over the DSS considering it has a budget of more than $5 million. The county allocated $1.8 million to that overall budget figure in its upcoming 2013-14 budget.
Blust added that if the commissioners did decide abolish the DSS board, it would still need an advisory board similar to the one for the Appalachian District Health Department.
Currently in Watauga, Chairman Nathan Miller serves on the five-member board. Two members of the board are selected by local commissioners; two are appointed by the N.C. Social Services Commission; and one is appointed by the other four members.
Mary Moretz currently serves on the local DSS board with Miller. She began her service on the DSS board as a county commissioner herself several years ago. After she left the commission, she was asked to serve on the DSS board again.
In February, Moretz suggested to High Country Press that politics were at play because Miller was the only Republican on the five-member board.
“I don’t really see a reason to change. It has been working very well in Watauga County for years. I can’t speak for every other county, but I will reiterate that the Watauga County Department of Social Services is highly respected in the state under Jim Atkinson,” Moretz said.
At the retreat, Atkinson said this change would politicize the appointment of the director, affecting it according to the direction of the “political wind.” Atkinson plans to retire in the next couple years, so he said this decision wouldn’t affect him personally.
“You do appoint a county attorney every time there is change in political favor. I would not like to see that happen with the DSS director position,” Atkinson said. “[This position] requires pretty extensive knowledge of the budget and personnel … Also, it requires me to make controversial decisions about people’s lives, children and families and I am concerned that a move like this would politicize the director’s position.”
Miller denies that this issue has anything to do with politics. He said this change would be no different than how the county currently oversees other departments such as maintenance, the tax office or parks and recreation, for example.
“It has nothing to do with politics,” Miller said. “The people who should do the hiring are the people who are elected. Jim is a great guy. I grew up with his boys. He runs a great department, but there is no guarantee that we will get another Jim again. We’ve already seen how hard it is fire somebody. Look at the school board situation. That could just as easily happen with DSS, but commissioners would have no ability to do anything about it.”
At end of the DSS portion of the budget retreat in February, Atkinson said, “I hope you do your homework.”
HCPress.com published a prior article about this issue on Feb. 21. Info from that article is included in this one: https://www.hcpress.com/news/watauga-county-commissioners-to-consider-taking-over-dss-board-are-politics-at-play.html