By Jesse Wood
Feb. 21, 2013. During its annual two-day budget retreat on Friday and Saturday, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners will address the potential abolishment of the local Department of Social Services (DSS) board.
House Bill 438, signed into law last year, grants boards of county commissioners authority to abolish the county’s social services 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, an expert on this particular topic, wrote that by abolishing the board of social services, the board of commissioners’ most significant responsibility would be to appoint the social services director, which is currently Jim Atkinson.
The county commissioners would also establish policies for programs administered by the department. However she added, “There is little room for county boards to engage in programmatic policy-making.”
“The boards do, however, advise the director and other local officials on social services programs and social conditions in the county,” according to Wall. “Board members also may inspect confidential county social services records relating to public assistance and services.”
Calls to some commissioners and Geouque were not returned as of press time. Commissioners David Blust and John Welch were reached, however both knew little on the matter and needed to peruse the packet before the two-day retreat starts and before commenting.
A memo from the County Manager Deron Geouque in the retreat packet reads, “The move will allow commissioners more control and oversight of the two agencies.”
This issue recently came up at an Ashe County Board of Commissioners meeting in January when the topic of how DSS funds were spent came up but quickly floundered.
“DSS has a more than $50 million budget, and as commissioners, we know almost nothing about it,” said Commissioner Judy Porter Poe during a January meeting, according to The Jefferson Post. “I would like to see it put under [County Manager Pat] Mitchell.”
However, on Feb. 18, the Ashe County Board of Commissioners, after gathering information and research, decided not to abolish and voted against taking over their DSS board. Poe motioned to put the Ashe DSS board under Mitchell’s oversight, however that motioned failed 1-4, according to a The Jefferson Post article written on Thursday.
Two of the commissioners who voted against the restructuring of the DSS board mentioned not wanting to undercut the authority of its current DSS director and not wanting to place a “heavier burden” on County Manager Dr. Pat Mitchell and more responsibility” on the board of commissioners.
Currently in Watauga, Chairman Nathan Miller serves on the five-member board. Two members of the board are selected by the Watauga County Board of Commissioners; two members are appointed by the N.C. Social Services Commission; and one member 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 in the mid-2000s, and after she left the commission, she was asked to serve on the DSS board again.
Yesterday, she received a memo from Atkinson alerting the DSS board of the commissioners’ proposal to abolish the local DSS board.
“I just asked him where this was coming from,” Moretz said, who still is curious as to why this is happening.
She wonders if politics are at play because she said the other four DSS board members serving alongside Miller, a Repubican, are four Democrats.
“It seems like we’ve always been in agreement for the good of people, [though] Republicans could be a little perturbed that four registered Democrats are on that board, and Nathan is the only Republican,” Moretz said. “But I don’t know if that’s true.”
“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.
She added that this board is “one of the best DSS boards in North Carolina.”
“I just don’t see the value of this at this time,” Moretz said.
Atkinson returned a phone call on Friday morning. He said he was “very concerned” with the proposal concerning the disbandment of the DSS board.
He said he is attending the retreat on Saturday to discuss “our point of view” – his and the DSS board’s, minus Miller – and mention some of the “negative sides” to making this kind of change. He pointed out that the Ashe County Board of Commissioners decided not to go this route.
Atkinson added that he is not sure yet as to how disbursements or revenues would change, but he said that this kind of change would unnecessarily politicize the work that the Department of Social Services does.
“I really want to hear their reasons for wanting to make this change. I am not sure why they would want to do this,” Atkinson said. “Some counties have already made this change. They do it cause it is more efficient way to operate – only one board to oversee the two departments, the DSS and health department. Other than having more control, I don’t know what the upside would be. They already control our finances and personnel. I am not sure what else they would actually want.”
Geouque noted in the packet that the board must provide a 30-day notice of a public hearing detailing the board’s intent to disband the DSS board and consolidate the responsibilities and duties under the board of commissioners.
It must also hold the public hearing and adopt a resolution. The resolution that has already been drafted is dated May 7.