Human services agency approved

By Vicki Hyatt | Jan 15, 2014
Photo by: Mountaineer file photo

In early January, the two of the largest departments in the county quietly merged.

There were no comments at the public hearing held in December on the merger of the social services and the health departments, and the commissioners barely discussed the move before the vote.

The two agencies have a $17.5 million operating budget, though much of the funds are state and federal monies that must be reported as county revenue and then spent according to specific guidelines.

The lack of discussion about integrating the services and the respective governing boards that oversee operations, said Commission Chairman Mark Swanger, was the result of extensive planning, discussion and work sessions leading up to the action. A task force began studying the integration in August 2012 and concluded there would be multiple benefits by integrating the two departments.

When the former Walmart space near Clyde was purchased in 2010 and then converted to a building that would provide offices for all human services, combining the health and human service administrative functions was not allowed under state law. But the vision back then was to provide more efficiencies by co-locating the offices, which had previously been on separate campuses.

"We've been talking about this a long time," Swanger said.

"I think the reason we've not heard a lot of comments is that everyone has been in the loop and we took our time," Commissioner Kevin Ensley added.

Commissioner Mike Sorrells, who is the board's representative on the social services board, said Haywood's model is being looked at by other counties considering the action.

"Some counties just jumped right in and had to sort through problems," he said. "We didn't do that."

The resolution passed by the commissioners references a 2012 state law that allows counties to form a consolidated human services agency and stipulates a new governing board will be appointed to oversee policies, rules and administrative functions of the agency.

Nominations for the new board will be submitted to the commissioners no later than Feb. 17, and the new board appointed will be responsible for preparing the agency budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

“After careful study, task force concluded Haywood County could benefit by focusing on overall client needs, coordination of client services and having less duplicated effort,” Ira Dove, social services director and interim county manager, told the board.

An updated task force report detailed the integration process to date and outlined a timeline for completing the agency strategic plan in 2015.

The health and the social services departments share many clients, and the integration report stressed the importance of cross-training personnel to realize efficiencies within the department and better serve clients.

Any initial savings realized with a combined department would be reinvested to increase taxpayer savings in the long term, the task force recommended.

Carmine Rocco, health department director, said the integration plan has been thoroughly examined to decide how it can work best in the county.

“I think we’ve come up with a good approach,” he said. “We’re looking at improving our efficiency, particularly with shared clients. This gives us flexibility to respond to changes when needed.”

For instance, if more resources are needed in one area, a combined department could shift them to another area, he suggested. Additionally, health and human services functions are handled through a single state agency, and counties are struggling as the new computer systems, NC Fast, used in processing food and nutrition claims, and NC Tracks, used for Medicaid claims, come on line.

The computer transition has been rocky one, and is one that landed N.C. Department and Human Services Director Aldona Wos in hot water on several occasions as medical payments to providers were delayed, food stamp applications languished for several months and 49,000 Medicaid cards for children contained personal information, were send to the wrong addresses.

A federal government letter sent in mid-December threatened to withhold administrative funding for the food stamp program because of the delays — an action that would be felt at the county level where part of the the administration occurs.

As the state problems are worked out, it will become easier for county employees to deliver services.

“The fact we’re co-located makes it beneficial,” Rocco said. “There's work to be done in getting the infrastructure, management support, information technology, finance and human resources integrated... When this is done, we will be able to better serve the needs of the community.”

In addition to the ability to shift resources and staff to programs where it is needed most, the new system allows plenty of other opportunities to streamline work, he said.