A 2012 state law gave counties the option of merging two or more of their social services departments into a single entity, and when commissioners Ron Mau and Mickey Luker were elected in 2016, exploring this option in Jackson County was one of their goals.
The county kicked off discussion of the issue with a March 2017 meeting involving commissioners, members of the health and social services boards, staff from both departments and representatives from the University of North Carolina School of Government who had been engaged to come present the issue. Then, during a special-called meeting in November 2017, commissioners voted 3-2 to pursue consolidation.
“It streamlines the chain of command is the biggest thing, as far as direct reports to the county manager and things like that,” Mau said. “Long-term there might be some budgetary items that come into play that might save money.”
Changes to chain of command
Consolidation proponents say that the change would allow for improved communication between the two departments — which tend to have an overlapping client list — and perhaps provide the chance to trim budgets by combining back-end services like IT support and billing.
On the board of commissioners, the proponent-opponent division on this issue splits along party lines. Republican commissioners Charles Elders, Mau and Luker are in favor of consolidation, while Democratic commissioners Brian McMahan and Boyce Deitz are opposed.
“I feel like we’re putting a lot of effort into something just to say we changed it for change’s sake,” Deitz said. “I think it’s sore foolish. Not one person has come to me and said, ‘I hope we can get this done.’”
“I believe we have a human services operation right now through the health department and the DSS that is effective and efficient and managed very well,” McMahan said. “I have no concerns. I see no reason to try to fix something that ain’t broke.”
Mau said that, while he does support consolidation, it’s not because anything actually is broken — consolidation simply offers the chance for things to run even more smoothly. He sees consolidation as offering a “streamlined” chain of command offering more direct reports to the county manager. For other commissioners, however, that “streamlined” process is an argument against consolidation rather than an argument for it.
“It just potentially brings politics into the process,” McMahan said. “Right now those boards are very independent and now they’re going to be appointed completely by the county commissioners and under the county manager’s control.”
Currently, the health board is completely appointed by the county commissioners, but the five-member social services board contains two commissioner appointments, two governor appointments and one appointment by the board itself.
Impacts to logistics
Luker and Elders both cited logistical efficiency as a top reason to favor consolidation. The health and social services departments serve much of the same clientele, but those services are offered at different locations and administered by different people, which can be confusing and time-consuming.
As an example, Luker brought up a hypothetical family that is in need of WIC, Medicaid and counseling — currently, those services would fall across two departments and involve a good bit of back-and-forth across town.
“Focus on that family as an entity then and there, without them having to see multiple agencies or multiple individuals or travel multiple places,” Luker said. “They may still have to see three folks, but hopefully we can look at it and streamlining it that they can do that in one setting.”
In a March 2017 interview, then-director of the consolidated Haywood County Department of Health and Human Services Stoney Blevins concurred with that assessment, saying that consolidation in Haywood has been “great” and that he “really can’t think of any downsides.”
However, there is a big difference between Jackson and Haywood in this situation. In Haywood, the two departments existed under one roof before consolidation. In Jackson, they’re housed in buildings across town from one another — and that’s a situation that’s unlikely to change in the near future.
The DSS building is still fairly new, built roughly a decade ago, and the county is in the midst of a multi-million-dollar renovation of the health department building. Plans do not call for any sort of expansion that would accommodate DSS functions on the site.
Mau allows that collocating the departments isn’t a likely scenario but wants to see the county use technology to better facilitate communication between the two locations.
“Everybody seems to think it has been an improvement for their counties that have done it and that I’ve talked to,” Mau said.
Luker said he’s also heard feedback from personnel within the health and social services departments saying that consolidation is a good idea.
However, statements made publicly at the two meetings commissioners have held on the subject have been overwhelmingly opposed to consolidation.
“We have agencies of which we can be very proud, and we need to celebrate and support the work we are currently doing,” retired Department of Social Services employee and Jackson County resident Jennifer Montsinger said during the November meeting. “Our agencies are only as good as the leadership that is provided to them, and we have the best. Please keep them in place.”
“I hope we’re making change that needs to be made and not making change for the sake of change,” health board member Jerry DeWeese said during the March meeting. Jennifer Abshire, director of social services, expressed similar feelings in comments sent via email.
“Lots of times consolidation is used to get some unmanageable leaders under control, and that is not the case in Jackson,” Abshire said. “I feel that DSS and the Health Department are already held accountable in many ways to the county manager with our budgets and major projects.”
Abshire and Health Director Shelley Carraway were both hired in summer 2016, and by all accounts collaboration between the two departments is going well.
“My interest is in doing the best for the people who DSS is there to serve, and whether that will make the situation better or worse I really don’t know,” said Charles Wolfe, vice chair of the DSS board. “I guess what I would be looking for is the compelling reason why the commissioners feel this is a good thing to do, and I guess some concrete data to back up that it will do that.”
A favorable vote would mean that the existing health and social services boards must then nominate people to serve on the board for the consolidated department. Commissioners must appoint the initial board through these nominations. Once the new board is established, the existing boards would dissolve.
The new board’s first task will be to appoint a director for the consolidated department. This could mean hiring a new position, or it could mean moving one of the directors of the existing departments into the role.
A public hearing at 5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 29, in Room A201 of the Jackson County Justice and Administration Building in Sylva will take input on a proposal to consolidate the Department of Health and the Department of Social Services into a single department. Anybody is welcome to speak on the issue for up to three minutes, with written comments accepted as well.
On the same day, a public hearing on proposed changes to the Cullowhee Community Planning Area Development Standards — copies are online at jacksonnc.org/planning — will be held at 4:55 p.m. and a public hearing on a proposed No Wake Zone between the mainland and two islands at the north end of Lake Glenville will be held at 5:55 p.m.