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Jackson health, DSS organization will be an election issue

Jackson County commissioners discuss the future of the consolidated human services agency and board. Jessi Stone photo Jackson County commissioners discuss the future of the consolidated human services agency and board. Jessi Stone photo

After nearly a year of public hearings, votes and contentious meetings, Jackson County’s health and social services departments are back where they started — sort of. 

Following a party-line vote Aug. 20 to abolish the Consolidated Human Services Department — which itself was created through an identical vote in January — and replace it with a Department of Public Health and Department of Social Services, community members will no longer comprise the board that oversees those functions. The county commissioners will, and the directors of the two departments will no longer report to a set of independent boards — as was the case before commissioners voted to consolidate the departments in January — but will instead report to the county manager, just as they did when consolidation was in effect. As a result of the vote, the county will no longer hire a new director’s position to oversee the consolidated department. 

State statute requires the county to set up an advisory board of health composed mainly of professionals in the field, but no such requirement is in place for social services. 

However, it’s possible that — like consolidation itself — the current set-up will be a short-term situation. In every consolidation-related vote, the board of commissioners has split cleanly along party lines, with Republican Commissioners Ron Mau, Mickey Luker and Charles Elders in favor and Commissioner Boyce Deitz and Chairman Brian McMahan, both Democrats, opposed. 

With elections coming up in November, that 3 to 2 balance could change. Deitz, Elders and McMahan are up for election. Mau is running against McMahan for the chairman’s seat. If Mau wins, he will join the other three commissioners to choose a fifth member; if he loses, he’ll retain his seat until his term is up in 2020. The board could flip to a Democratic majority, or the Republican majority could strengthen. 

“I made the commitment that if I’m given the opportunity, then I will put a motion on the floor at some point to go back to the original arrangement, the original structure, which is two independent volunteer boards, if and when I get the votes to do that,” McMahan said. 

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Mau, meanwhile, has hinted that the departments could become consolidated once again, depending how things go with the new structure. 

“For now it’s wait and see how this will work, and we’ll move from there,” he said. 

Mau has been a staunch proponent of consolidation. Minutes before voting to abolish the consolidated department Aug. 20, he said that Buncombe County had documented an average of $2.4 million per year in savings after consolidation in the last 10 years, about 2.4 percent of the total health services budget. In Jackson County, a 2.4 percent savings would translate to $360,000 per year. Consolidation was a way to make government more efficient and save taxpayer money, he said. 


Halted hiring 

Before the Aug. 20 vote, the county had been in the process of hiring a consolidated department director to oversee the existing health and social services directors. The salary range for the position was $74,000 to $145,000, plus benefits — opponents of consolidation said the position would be an expensive and needless hire for a job that was already being done well with current staff, while proponents said the position would allow for a more global perspective of the department and allow for more strategic decisions in the future. 

Consolidation has been controversial from the beginning, when a Jan. 29 public hearing on the proposal drew 11 speakers, mostly professionals in the health and social services fields and all opposed to consolidation. 

However, commissioners voted in a 3 to 2 party-line vote to move forward, espousing their trust in and appreciation for the existing health and social services boards but holding fast to their belief that consolidation would allow for a streamlined framework that would increase accountability, improve services and cross-department communication and provide cost savings. 

But, on Aug. 20, those same commissioners voted to abolish the consolidated department as well as the consolidated board, which contained many of the same people who had sat on the previous health and social services boards.

The motion was proposed by Luker, who sat as the county commission’s representative on the consolidated board. It was a reaction to the consolidated board’s Tuesday, Aug. 14, vote to postpone hiring a director for the new department until after the November elections. Depending on election results, board members said, the consolidation could be reversed and the county could have caused its new hire to uproot his or her life for what would prove to be only a short-term job. 

The Aug. 14 motion carried 10 to 1, with Luker the sole vote opposed. 

Luker did not make any statements on the issue at the meeting and didn’t have any follow-up conversations about it with members of the consolidated board. However, he did draft a pair of resolutions to put on the commissioners’ meeting agenda for Aug. 20. One option would have kept the consolidated department and put commissioners in place of the existing board, while the other option — the one that was ultimately chosen — would dissolve the consolidated department and seat commissioners as the boards of health and social services. 

“I kind of found out about it (the resolution) in a roundabout way, and it was definitely not through him (Luker),” said Kathy Farmer, who chaired the consolidated board. “No one that evening during the discussion when the motion was made to delay the hiring of the director, no one spoke against that.”


Injecting politics? 

Luker would later make it known that he was vehemently opposed to the action. 

“For a board not to respect the vote and the direction of the county commissioners is just bewilderment,” Luker said. “It’s not their decision to decide whether it’s correct, politically incorrect, whatever. Their agreement to serve as a board member and agree to be a board member — it wasn’t like they didn’t have a choice to be on that board. As a board member they should have been cohesive in getting everything together and hiring a director and moving forward and looking at it in the best interest of the agency.”

“If you’re a county employee in certain positions, do you now have to worry at every election outcome?” asked Mau. 

In his comments to the board Aug. 20, County Manager Don Adams said that the contentious nature of consolidation and the board’s vote to wait for the November elections before hiring the new director put staff in a difficult spot. 

“This whole process in my mind has become politicized. It’s openly being discussed about what may or may not occur in the next election. As manager representing the staff, it’s a position we don’t need to be in,” Adams said. 

Deitz, who attended the Aug. 14 meeting, saw it differently. As it was, the county wouldn’t likely be ready to hire anybody until October, so waiting until November or December wouldn’t set things back too much. Acknowledging that the election could have an impact on consolidation isn’t necessarily politicizing the issue, he said — it’s just acknowledging reality. 

“It wasn’t but two weeks different,” said Deitz. “I wouldn’t want my son to take a job doing that knowing that he’d move his family and a month later the board changed and they do away with a job.”

“I felt like the reasoning brought forth was very persuasive and was wise and was not meant to be political or just stall the hiring of someone, but was to make a wise decision and know that things would not be changed a few weeks after the hiring occurred,” Farmer agreed.

The politicization in this scenario, Deitz and McMahan said, is instead the fact that an elected board of commissioners will now replace a nonpartisan appointed board of professionals overseeing the health and social services functions. 

“We have eliminated doctors and veterinarians and engineers and psychiatrists, nurses and all these types of people that are professional people in order to basically supervise these two departments ourselves. And it’s ridiculous,” said Deitz.

“It interjects politics into the play,” added McMahan. “Those two agencies are both serving people, people with needs, not a power control. I think that’s what it comes down to. I think there’s three commissioners that wanted control.”

Mau and Luker both deny that politics will influence their decisions as health and social services board members and pointed out that the health department will retain an advisory board of professionals. 

“I do what I think is right based on input I receive from staff and constituents and experts, looking at the data of course, and make my decisions accordingly,” said Mau. “I don’t make decisions based on what I think is going to get me a vote or not get me a vote.”

Luker said that elections are the people’s mechanism to make sure that undue political influence doesn’t happen. 

“There’s always that potential out there, but let’s just say that people hold people more accountable and I just think we have better people that run for office than that,” he said. 


Commissioners as board members

Either way, adding in the new board duties will heighten the demand on commissioners’ already-demanding schedule. In a 2016 Smoky Mountain News story investigating how much work commissioners put in and how much they’re paid, Jackson County commissioners put the workload at anywhere from eight to 20 hours per week, depending on the time of year. For that they receive a $12,000 salary, plus travel expenses and a $75 per-meeting fee. 

“The commissioners have a lot on their plates, and going through the training that we have gone through to understand more about the legal aspects of both departments and also their budgets and their operations — I just don’t see that being a possibility for the commissioners,” said Farmer. “They’re just not going to have the time to do that, nor do they have the professional experience.”

Mau said he’d make it work. 

“I’ll make the time,” he said. “I’ll sleep less. Watch less football in the fall.”

Health Director Shelley Carraway said she shares concerns about whether commissioners will be able to shoulder the additional time commitment and acknowledged that, while she doesn’t see it happening with the current board, the new structure could set the departments up for political influence down the road. On the flip side, she said, the new structure could be a good thing for the department. 

“If the commissioners become our board, maybe we should see this as a great thing because they’re my board. They’ll have to see me more and hear all about my issues,” she said. “It’s always good when your elected leaders know you intimately because when you have something come up they have a great background to react.”

Social Services Director Jennifer Abshire also said she was optimistic about the new arrangement. 

“I will say that throughout the state, the people I have talked to that are in this situation — which has only been two counties that I have talked with — it’s been successful for them,” she said. 

Both Abshire and Carraway said that the changes shouldn’t have any effect on day-to-day operations, such as employment and service delivery. 

Commissioners declined to hold a public hearing before voting to abolish consolidation and seat themselves as boards over the departments, but a public hearing will be held after the fact at 2:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 1, at the Jackson County Administration Building in Sylva. 

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