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Jackson will hire new director to oversee consolidated department

Commissioner Boyce Deitz takes to a whiteboard to sketch out his opposition to consolidation following a Jan. 29 public hearing on the matter. Holly Kays photo Commissioner Boyce Deitz takes to a whiteboard to sketch out his opposition to consolidation following a Jan. 29 public hearing on the matter. Holly Kays photo

After January’s split vote to merge the social services and health departments into one consolidated department, the Jackson County commissioners are moving toward appointing a board and hiring a director to oversee the new department. 

During an April 10 work session, Health Department Director Shelley Carraway and Social Services Director Jennifer Abshire presented their boards’ nominations to serve on the new, consolidated board, which will replace the existing health and social services boards. Meanwhile, commissioners discussed plans to hire a new position to oversee the consolidated department, with Carraway and Abshire likely remaining in place as directors of the health and social services divisions. 

The new director would report to the county manager and draw a salary between $74,000 and $145,000, plus benefits. 


Board nominations meet approval 

Commissioners seemed satisfied with the names presented to fill the new consolidated board. Of the 17 board positions, current health board members were nominated for five of them and current social services board members were nominated for two. One position — which state law mandates must be filled by a psychiatrist — is vacant for lack of eligible candidates. A second vacant position will be filled by one of the county commissioners. 

“I think this is a very good list,” said Chairman Brian McMahan. “I was very pleased to see the names. I have no concerns about anybody on here.”

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Commissioners plan to officially create the board and approve its members during their May 7 meeting. 

For the first three to six months, said County Manager Don Adams, the main task will be to educate the board about the services they’re charged to oversee. After that educational piece is done, Adams said, the board will pin down organizational items such as meeting policies. Currently, the social services board meets monthly and the health department board meets quarterly — the new board will likely need to meet monthly until the director’s position is hired, with the possibility of reduced meeting frequency afterward. 

Unlike the existing health and social services boards, the consolidated board will be an advisory body, not a governing body. Currently, the directors of the health and social services departments report directly to their boards, which have hiring and firing authority over the directors. Under the new configuration, the director of the consolidated department will report directly to the county manager, with the board of commissioners as the final authority — though state law says that any decision to hire or fire the director would be made with “the advice and consent of the consolidated human services board.” Until the new director is hired, Adams will operate as the point person for the consolidated department, with Abshire and Carraway reporting to him. 


Opinion divided on new position 

As consolidation was discussed leading up to a final vote Jan. 29, commissioners gave no uniform answer as to whether a new position would be created to oversee the merged department or whether job responsibilities for the existing directors would be shuffled to accommodate the change. However, it now appears likely that the county will hire the director as an additional position. 

According to Commissioner Ron Mau, a proponent of consolidation who is also running against Chairman Brian McMahan in November, state law sets the leadership structure. The county will benefit from the long-term strategy the additional administrator will make possible, he said. 

“One of the big things I said all along about consolidation is this would provide the structure for more accountability and also the ability to improve services,” Mau said. “This gives you the overall person that would have the direct line to the county manager. Plus you have somebody who has a more global perspective of all the human services and health services that are offered to the county, so you can get more strategic in the future.”

Despite the significant salary the new director will command, Mau maintains his position that consolidation will lead to long-term cost savings. Those savings could come from combining responsibilities for the attorneys and IT people who currently serve the two departments and from thinking carefully about how to replace employees who leave. 

“Maybe over time as people age out of the workforce you can get more strategic with replacements — do they need to be replaced? Things like that,” Mau said. “That goes back to the more strategic, more global view.” 

McMahan disagrees. Until the May 7 meeting when the new structure is officially launched, he said, he’ll be researching state law to determine whether the county is indeed obligated to hire a separate director’s position as part of the consolidation though he conceeds it likely will be. 

“A common thing I kept hearing from some of the commissioners is this is going to be more efficient, a cost savings,” he said. “Well this is going to cost us more money, because in addition to the staff we already have we’re going to pay somebody a pretty good sum of money on a position that right now we don’t even have to have, we don’t need.”

He doesn’t buy Mau’s argument that the additional administrator will lead to cost savings down the road. 

“I do not believe this position will generate any cost savings,” he said. “In essence it will cost more. That is a fairy tale to think that it’s going to save us money.”


The road to consolidation 

Consolidation became a topic of discussion soon after the 2016 elections, and in March 2017 commissioners held a meeting in which presenters from the University of North Carolina School of Government discussed the ins and outs of the 2012 state law that made consolidation possible. 

UNC’s Jill Moore told commissioners that counties have consolidated for a variety of reasons — a desire to improve service delivery, save money or fix a strained relationship between commissioners and the departments — but cautioned them that consolidation doesn’t always save money and doesn’t necessarily make for seamless communication between departments, as legal restrictions remain in place as to what information can be shared with who. 

During a Jan. 29 public hearing on the proposed consolidation, every one of the 11 people who spoke were opposed to consolidation. The comments included concerns that the reorganization would make political influence in the dispensation of services easier to achieve, that the learning curve for board members tasked with learning the ins and outs of health and social services functions would be too great, and that since both boards and departments are already functioning well together there’s no need to change anything. 

Throughout discussion of the proposal, the departments’ directors and members of their boards have said that physical relocation — the health and social services buildings sit across town from each other — should be a higher priority than organizational consolidation. Those in favor of consolidation said they didn’t believe anything was broken in the current system but that reorganization would streamline the chain of command and make logistics easier for families using services from both departments. 

Following the public hearing commissioners voted to approve consolidation in a party-line vote. Republican Commissioners Mau, Charles Elders, and Mickey Luker were in favor. McMahan and Commissioner Boyce Deitz, both Democrats, were opposed. 

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