Stanly County Board of Commissioners August Meeting – Consolidation Discussion

Some of you have been following the issue the Stanly County board of commissioners has been tossing around regarding the possible merging of the Board of Health and the Social Services Board. I wrote an article in anticipation of the August 7th hearing, which you can read here if you’d like.

I had the pleasure of speaking at that meeting and being given the opportunity to express my thoughts about the merger. I thought it was time to write a follow-up article and reveal a little more than I did previously.

I’ve held off writing the article or any follow-up pieces before now out of respect for the candor the commissioners showed me when speaking to me privately when I called them. I won’t mention any names here in regards to any conversations I had with commissioners because I would like to preserve the opportunity to engage them in future conversations and calling names here would only serve to burn bridges, not forge new channels for communication. I will however be forthright in my analysis of the meeting, as it’s a matter of public record and you can see the entire meeting on Youtube one its’s published anyway.

The issue: Board Consolidation

The core issue is whether to merge the Stanly County Board of Health and Social Services boards into one agency under a statute that allows for the formation of a CHSA (Consolidated Human Services Agency.)

The reasons stated:

The Stanly County website lists a variety of reasons for wanting this to go through. Some of the commissioners themselves revealed these same reasons to me in our converations.

  • It’s more efficient to manage one board.
  • It will save the county money to merge some positions that are currently duplicated within separate departments, though the county would not be firing anyone. Instead they would choose to cross-train certain key department positions so that when certain key personnel retired their position could then be combined into the position of their counterpart.

These are the reasons that have been advertised. Quite honestly, it’s not true. I’m too much of a gentlemen to call horse-shit in the middle of a council meeting, but I certainly felt like it.

The actual reasons:

There is, in reality, only one reason the Board of Commissioners wanted to consolidate the two departments. Under the current system of having two distinct boards, the role of the Director of Social Services (which I’ll shorten to DSSD from here on) is not answerable to the Board of Commissioners or to the County Manager. The North Carolina state mandate that outlines the job description for the DSSD quite clearly also lays out who can and can’t fire them, whom they answer to, and what their job is. As you might imagine, much of the inner workings of the department of social services, though provided within the confines of county government, are laid out by the state and federal government. You might oversimplify it by saying “they work in your county offices, but they follow our state’s rules.”

In short, the County Manager has absolutely zero ability to rein in, punish, or otherwise call to heel a DSSD he or she doesn’t agree with. If the Board of Commissioners wants something done, they tell the county manager. If he tells the DSSD and it doesn’t happen, that’s the end of it.

Some members of the board of county commissioners seem to think that power should rest in their hands.

Let me be clear – there is nothing in the regulations that requires the county commissioners to have either the education or work experience to be making decisions related to how the social services department is run. There are however quite a significant amount of guidelines offered by the state on how one should be run. Long story short, and I told them this in person last night – the Great State of North Carolina and the federal government have both seen fit to insure that the director of the social services department does NOT answer to the Board of Commissioners. That is by design. The only logical reason for making this change is because you want to supersede that and I think that’s a mistake. (or something to that effect. Truthfully I was nervous as hell and don’t remember a word of what I said.)

I actually got a round of applause after my little impromptu three-minute session, though I’m not sure why. When I left I got hugs from two ladies, and a lot of handshakes from a lot of nice people I’ve never met and have no idea who them are. I didn’t say anything anyone else before didn’t, except I had a few more facts at my disposal.  Then again, I think at this point I’ve done more research educating myself on this than the entire board of commissioners combined has.

I’m not a public speaker and to be honest that was my first time ever speaking in public at a venue such as that. I was expecting to be able to ask questions, but I guess I should have done my homework first. I had an entire list, organized in a flowing manner and ready to use.  Instead I tossed my questions out, went up there with four lines of hastily scribbled notes, and tried my best to rework the entire framework of questions into a statement format that would leave them leaning towards not trying to adopt this foolishness or at least being honest with the public about why they wanted to carry it out. I’m not sure whether it worked or not, but like I said.. the rest of the room seemed to appreciate it so I won’t consider it a total failure.

I know I told them that of the 22 counties that have adopted this policy, zero have ever reported any positive outcome whatsoever. There is actually NO data that has been collected by the UNC School of Government as of this date on the efficacy of this policy in any county that’s adopted it. I know that for a fact because I spoke to a representative from the UNC School of Government, attorney Aimee Wall, the week before and asked her that very question.

In the end, the Board of Commissioners wants to completely change around the structure of two county agencies – something that would take a minimum of ten years to see any real cost benefit, and five years to see any perceived benefit in efficiency, all so they can overrule the director of social services when they want to.

There is not a single thing wrong with the health department or the board of health, and a multitude of individuals from both departments stood up to say so, including two retired administrators from both departments. Yet two of the seven commissioners want to play for power. That was the sole reason for this change. When I pulled out all the facts dismantling the other ideas they tossed up as appeasement on the county website, they had nothing left except that to discuss.

The follow-up discussion was something I watched closely. I paid close attention to who pushed for it ,who pushed to quash it, and who remained silent throughout.

County Manager, Andy Lucas, when asked, very pointedly told the commissioners that adopting this policy would not result in the changes they’d asked him for. He didn’t detail what those changes were exactly, but did go on the record enough to insinuate that the board of commissioners wanted him to hold the DSSD accountable and if they didn’t do this, he’d continue to have no power to enforce their will on social services. I commend him for doing the best job possible to navigate the position he was put in. You can look at his face and know he doesn’t want this to go through, but he works directly for the people that very much want it pushed through so they can have their way with the social services department.

Commissioner Jann Lowder did her best to shut it down outright. She made a motion to simply not go through with the idea. She’s on the board of health and was against the idea from the outright. They argued about it for a bit but eventually her motion was denied. I give her credit for sticking to her guns and not letting anyone put words in her mouth. They tried two different times to reword her motion into something it wasn’t, but she stopped them each time and repeated herself clearly.  I don’t know that lady, but she’s got what my grandfather would call “spunk.”

Commissioner Joseph Burleson asked a lot of questions that never really got any answers either. I think he’s honestly open to adopting or voting it down, but I don’t know where he stands on the desire to control the DSSD. Either he’s honestly not sure what the other commissioner’s reasons are, or he’s got the best poker-face on the board. He didn’t vote to shut down the idea though.

Commissioner Ashley Morgan remained very quiet all night -neither coming out in support of, nor against the motion to consolidate the boards. He played things close to the vest and he’s also the only commissioner that didn’t answer me back when I emailed them about this a few weeks before the meeting. I’m going to assume he wants to consolidate the boards but didn’t feel the need to come out and say so because he knew it wasn’t going to pass anyway.

Commissioner Matthew Swain was openly for the consolidation. While I might not agree with him, at least I know where he stands and I can appreciate that. I know for a fact he supports the county manager having control over the department of social services and it’s director though. He told me that much in email. He eventually made the motion that was passed – to further study the options and to bring it up again at a later time with more information being made available to the public. This means we will likely be seeing this come up again in the next year, probably after the February retreat. I’d be surprised to see them regather enough momentum before then to try this year.

Overall there’s one problem: The final motion and operating agenda is to task the county agencies to go out and discover more about the issues I brought up at the meeting:

  • Has this saved any counties money? (No)
  • Has this improved the public’s opinion of social services? (N0)
  • Has this resulted in job satisfaction within the county departments? (No)
  • Has this made things less cumbersome? (No)
  • Has this improved anything anywhere? (No)

The problem with them doing that is the data doesn’t exist. There has been zero data collected by the state of North Carolina on the efficacy of a CHSA versus disparate boards. None.

If they DO choose to conduct their own research, my feeling is that it will be skewed. For example, County Manager Andy Lucas said he’d talked to seven or eight county managers. One hundred percent of them were happy with the changes. Of course they were. That’s county managers – the guys in the hot seat now! They were given more authority to do what their bosses wanted. Ergo, their jobs became less stressful.

Dennis Joyner performed as survey of 20 directors of nursing with an overwhelmingly opposite reaction. Across the board, 86% of the questions asked resulted in a status of “no change” or “worse off than before” with the answers.

Stanly County doesn’t have the resources or the wherewithal to conduct a statewide census of all departments and analyze that data objectively and weigh each department’s metrics against the other to come to a conclusion about the efficacy, efficiency, cost savings, or overall success of a project like this.  Yet, that’s their plan… to have their departments go find the answers and then bring it all back up again.

Personally, if this comes up again, I’ve got a few tricks of my own planned for the next meeting… There is absolutely zero legitimate reason for Stanly County to adopt this policy unless we are willing to accept the idea that our board of commissioners, who all lack the education necessary to make the decision of the the DSS director, should have the power to overrule that decision. Don’t get me wrong. DSS has it’s problems for sure, but up-ending two entire county departments just so you can boss around one county employee is NOT the way to govern and I hope this particular item comes up as a platform question for the next commissioner’s election’s talking points.

PS: It should be noted that the chairman of the board of commissioners commented that this was a “huge” crowd for a board meeting. It should also be noted that 100% of the entire room did not want this to go through. There wasn’t a single person from the community to stand up and offer support for the idea, yet there was a WHOLE LOT of support for shooting it down and not bringing it up again.


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