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Jackson continues consolidation conversation

Jackson continues consolidation conversation

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing over the possible consolidation of the Department of Health and Department of Social Services on Tuesday, Oct. 3. Despite receiving almost an hour of public comments from people opposed to the move, and three out of five commissioners expressing opposition, the board chose to proceed with the discussion.  


“I feel like we should push this to a work session for more general discussion, try and answer some of these questions,” said Chairman Mark Letson.

The board was scheduled to discuss the issue during a work session Tuesday, Oct. 10, but opted to delay the conversation when the agenda item came up.

What is up for debate?

The Board of Commissioners is considering three options for consolidation — and there is a fourth option that involves maintaining the status quo.

The county currently operates with a health department board that provides oversight for operations and hires and fires the health director. The county also has a separate DSS board that’s in charge of hiring the DSS director. State law permits county commissions to consolidate these agencies and boards in a couple of different ways.

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“What’s being discussed is whether or not this board wishes to move forward with some type of consolidation,” said County Manager Don Adams.

Under the first option, health and social services departments would not be consolidated, and commissioners would make up those boards and appoint the directors of both departments.

In the second option, the departments would be consolidated into one human services agency. The health department board and the social services board would likewise be consolidated. The Board of Commissioners would appoint members to the consolidated board. The county manager would appoint a Consolidated Human Services director with advice and consent from the human services board, and that director would appoint someone with health director qualifications.

Option three would also consolidate the health and social services departments into one human services agency. Under this option, the Board of Commissioners would assume the powers and duties of the consolidated human services board. The county manager would appoint a director for the agency with consent of the Board of Commissioners acting as the consolidated human services board. That director would appoint a person with health director qualifications.

“In any scenario in which you would take control of the health department board, it requires you to appoint an advisory board,” said Adams. “The advisory board would have similar requirements of the existing health department board.”

The public hearing on Oct. 3 allowed for consideration of all options.

Public comment

Fifteen Jackson County residents spoke in opposition to consolidation during the public hearing, including several public health officials and people who work in the public health field. Their primary concerns included not understanding how changes would unfold and having partisan politicians in charge of the boards that are under consideration.

“We are here today because Commissioner [John] Smith would like to insert himself into the daily operations of the health department and the social services department,” said Christine Taber. “This is a power grab, plain and simple. This reorganization should be tabled permanently.” 

“Commissioner Bryson, I have to say I echo your sentiments of not wanting Republicans or Democrats to be involved in our public health service. I, as a registered Democrat, I don’t want Democrats in charge of my health services, I don’t want politicians in charge of these services,” said Burgin Mackey, a student of public health. “I think it’s best to keep these services at the behest of people that have spent their lives, that have spent their entire careers focusing on the intricacies and the nuances of health departments of public health and of social services. I don’t see a benefit to consolidation and until those benefits are made plain to our community, I strongly urge this body to vote against consolidation.” 

David McGuire, a dentist in Jackson County who has served on the board of health for almost 40 years, spoke against consolidation, as did Colin Clayton, a new member of the health department board. Clayton noted the failed attempt at consolidation in 2018 .

“This has already been attempted and failed, so why attempt this again?” said Clayton. “My argument is really — is this going to provide better benefits for the employees? No. Better pay for the employees? No. Better training? Better qualifications? No. From a county resident standpoint, are we going to be able to provide more benefits, more services? No, we’re already doing that.” 

Dana Tucker, chair of the Department of Social Services Board of Directors, also spoke out against consolidation, saying that change is not always positive.

“Changing the leadership structure of these two vital public service agencies without divulging the full scope of the proposed plans to dissolve the two sitting boards gives rise to questions of motives and political agendas,” said Tucker. “Jackson County residents are fully aware that DSS and the health department serve the most vulnerable populations in our county. State and federal audits of these agencies do not indicate deficiencies requiring a gutting or restructuring of the current boards … The plan changes that we’re talking about may be beneficial, but it also may be a train wreck, and I don’t know which one; if there’s no proposed restructuring plan, how are we supposed to know? How are you supposed to know?” 

What’s next?

Commissioner Mark Jones has stated his opposition to consolidation, saying he has not yet seen a cost savings benefit to the move. Commissioner Tom Stribling, who sits on the health board, has also voiced opposition to consolidation, citing the fact that he has no medical background. Commissioner Bryson is also opposed because he does not think that partisan elected officials should oversee these departments.

Commissioners John Smith and Letson have voiced their support for consolidation, putting them in a minority among the five-member board. Smith has noted that it would allow the county more flexibility with employee salaries.

“If the board wishes to proceed forward then I would recommend that this conversation continue at work session, and if you choose not to move forward then the conversation does not continue,” said Adams during the Oct. 3 meeting. 

“I feel like we heard a pretty good idea of what we need to explain better and then make a decision based on that,” said Letson. “The goals and objectives are not clear so what we’ve decided at this point, I think we do have good goals and objectives, maybe we haven’t voiced it enough, at this point, but moving it to the work session will allow us more time to elaborate on the goals and objectives on any consolidation if we move forward with that. And allow us to get a little bit better feel as to how our constituents are really feeling and move in that direction.”

Bryson asked if consolidation would allow the county to compete better pay-wise with surrounding counties.

“Moving them over to the county system gives us more flexibility from what I understand, versus the state, because the state has ratios that you have to meet,” said Smith. “So, if you move one position’s salary it could affect other position salaries around it.”

The State Human Resources Act, according to Adams, has a required salary plan and required separations between grades and functions.

“Where you get a little bit limited in this conversation, under the current functions, is that if you tried to target certain positions, it does cause a chain reaction to potentially raise salaries that you weren’t intending to raise,” said Adams. “On its face, when you go away from the salary plan of the State Human Resources Act, generally speaking, it will give you more flexibility in regard to the pay scale.”

Adams urged the board to remember that pay issues don’t exist solely within the Department of Social Services, that there are several other departments in the county experiencing the same problems.

“Right now, the biggest stress in my conversations that I’m having directly with social services really relates to the child welfare issues,” said Adams.

Commissioners voted unanimously to discuss the issue of consolidation further during the Oct. 10 work session. However, because Commissioner Smith was not at the meeting the board decided to postpone the conversation for a later date.

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