January 14, 2010
|County Considers Killing Off The Boards|
Some Guilford County commissioners have been talking about it behind the scenes – "whispering" to use the word of Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Skip Alston – and now the conversation is officially out in the open. The Guilford County commissioners are considering combining three county departments – the Department of Public Health, the Department of Social Services and the Guilford Center, which addresses mental health issues in Guilford County – and the move would also mean doing away with the three county boards that oversee those departments.
The duties of the three boards would either be taken over by the Guilford County Board of Commissioners or by a new human services board – perhaps one made up of about 15 members appointed by the commissioners.
The idea of consolidating the three departments was the source of a very lively discussion at the commissioners' retreat on Thursday, Jan. 7, and since this was the first public discussion the board has had on the matter, many commissioners are still trying to understand the benefits and drawbacks of such a move.
At the retreat, Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne explained the legal ramifications of a consolidation to the commissioners.
Payne said that, from a legal standpoint, the state statute that allows the consolidation of the departments and the boards is fairly "straightforward." Any county in North Carolina that has a population in excess of 425,000 residents – Guilford County has about 472,000 – is allowed to unite the departments. The law was put in place years ago so that Mecklenburg County could consolidate its departments. However, as Guilford and Wake counties grew, those counties became eligible as well. State legislatures cannot create a law for a specific county, so that's why the population criteria was used.
Of the three counties in the state eligible to do so – Wake County, Mecklenburg County and Guilford County – two of those, Wake and Mecklenburg, have already consolidated their departments.
Payne said there were two options for replacing the three boards. One possibility is that the Board of Commissioners can act as the governing body that oversees a consolidated human services department. Under that scenario, he said, the commissioners could use advisory boards to help them make decisions.
"That's more or less the Mecklenburg model," Payne said.
He said Guilford County also had the option of going with the "Wake model," in which case the commissioners would set up a new board to oversee the department.
Payne said a human services board could, by law, have up to 25 members.
In either case, Payne said, the commissioners would need to hold a public hearing, with 30 days prior notice to the citizens. A board resolution approved by a majority of the commissioners would establish the new structure.
Payne said the state statute was "silent" on whether the county could opt to only combine two of the departments and boards, but he added that, in his opinion, it was a legal option.
"It's also Wake County's opinion," Payne said.
Payne said he wasn't making a recommendation one way or another; he was only, he said, giving the commissioners the details of the law.
In addition to Payne, there were two other presenters on the topic at the retreat: Jerry Fox, a retired Mecklenburg County manager, and Drake Maynard, from the NC Office of State Personnel.
Fox said it had been about 20 years since Mecklenburg had switched to the consolidated human services model, and he said he was there to give his "general impression 20 years out."
In the 1980s, Fox said, Mecklenburg County had three separate boards and three separate departments, and he added that he believed the original intent of having independent boards oversee those departments was "to try to keep those human services out of the political sphere" and to "divorce it from the Board of Commissioners."
Fox said the merger in Mecklenburg brought about more coordination of the three agencies and, he added, there were no major problems that led to consolidation.
"The departments were not badly run," Fox said, adding that many in his county's government wanted to make the change despite the fact that things were running smoothly there.
He added that the move had a great deal of support in the community.
"First of all, it had unanimous support of our county commissioners," Fox said.
He said the commissioners voted to dissolve the three boards and put the power in their own hands, and now the county commissioners act as the three boards used to do.
"We have now had this structure for 20 years," he said. "We believe it is better for the client."
Maynard also spoke briefly before he, Fox and Payne took questions. He said the state doesn't have a position one way or the other as to what Guilford County should do.
"This is a Guilford County issue," he told the board.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman asked Maynard the downside of merging.
"I've not heard the con side of this," Coleman said. "Are there any negatives?"
Maynard replied: "If you go this way, there's going to be some disruption."
He added that there would no doubt be "some unhappiness" among the players.
"A lot of people are not good with changes," Maynard said, adding that "turf battles" can arise with consolidation.
"Those are what I would see as some of the potential cons," he said.
Coleman asked Fox why any county would make the change if things were working well.
Fox said Mecklenburg County did it to "better coordinate human services functions."
"They were not talking with each other," he said. He added that, under the consolidated model, "We think we are providing a better service to the client in a coordinated fashion."
Commissioner Paul Gibson, who has had little agreement with Alston and Vice Chairman of the Board Steve Arnold and is usually opposed to any idea that comes out of the Alston/Arnold camp, as this one did, wasn't instantly opposed to the idea.
"I'm very intrigued by this," Gibson said. "I don't know if this is a good thing – I do have a lot of questions."
While most commissioners were open to the proposal, Commissioner Bruce Davis didn't like it at all.
"It's a major change and there's no real cost savings," Davis said.
Davis said that, from what he was hearing, he couldn't determine that there were any tangible, measurable benefits to consolidation.
"I'm trying to wrap my mind around how you really get to that point to really say that it's working," Davis added.
Fox, Maynard and Payne spoke about some of the benefits. If the commissioners are overseeing something and making the decisions, there's more accountability to the voters. Also, a single department could offer "coordinated budgeting," meaning a consolidated department might be able to combine some functions, streamline operations and cut positions. In addition, the system would allow a "single port of entry" for clients.
It would also permit the sharing of certain client information that's not possible now. For instance, sometimes social services workers feel they could do their jobs better if they had access to their clients' medical and mental health records, and the health department employees sometimes feel they could benefit from seeing IRS information that currently only social services workers are allowed to see.
Guilford County Manager Brenda Jones Fox also brought up the benefit of shared information and Payne said that, when counties have three separate departments, there are "challenges to sharing information."
Commissioner Kay Cashion said that, all over the country, local governments were looking more and more for ways to consolidate.
Alston used the occasion to strongly encourage the three departments to work more closely together in the future, regardless of whether or not the Board of Commissioners decides to consolidate the three departments.
Alston said he's been in Guilford County government for 18 years and, in all that time, he said, he's never heard of the three departments getting together for a discussion.
"I don't know if they ever get together or not," Alston said.
Guilford County Health Director Merle Green and Social Services Director Robert Williams were in the room. However, Guilford Center Director Billie Martin Pierce was unable to attend for medical reasons.
"Somebody needs to start shouting that it needs to be done," Alston said.
He challenged the county manager and the three department heads to come together and discuss some common concerns and strategies.
Gibson suggested a proper first step might be for department directors to get together and have a discussion.
"Why don't we suggest that?" Alston said, turning to look directly at Green and Williams as he did.
At the meeting, Williams and Green never spoke; Green sat quietly on the back row taking notes during the discussion.
Commissioners Mike Winstead, John Parks and Coleman wanted to know how the idea originated.
Alston said it was an option for the county to consider in the interest of perhaps creating some efficiencies and offering better service to the clients of the three departments. He pointed out that nothing had been decided one way or the other.
Coleman said the first she saw of the matter was in The Rhino Times.
Cashion said there was nothing unusual about that: "I usually know what's going to happen at the meeting after reading The Rhino," Cashion said.