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County could move to take control of Social Services

Originally published: Jan. 23, 2013
Last modified: Jan. 23, 2013

Adam Orr

In a bid to ensure the Ashe County Department of Social Services is run effectively, the Ashe County Board of Commissioners is gathering information and contemplating making DSS a county department, according to Ashe County Commissioner Judy Poe. 

“We’ve always heard that social services was off-limits, that county commissioners can’t do anything with it,” said Ashe County Commissioner Judy Poe during a work session on Jan. 7. “I think since it’s one of our biggest expenses we need to know what programs they’ve got, and where they’re spending the funds. To me I'd like to see (DSS) put under (Ashe County Manager Pat) Mitchell’s (oversight), instead of an independent board.”

According to Mitchell, HB 438, passed in 2012, gives county commissioners some flexibility in the way social services and public health departments are organized.

The move could allow the dissolution of the independent board that currently oversees DSS operations, in favor of an appointed manager — in this case Mitchell. 

“DSS has a more than $50 million budget, and as commissioners, we know almost nothing about it,” said Poe. 


North Carolina's Social Services departments are federally mandated and operate with state supervision, but are ultimately administered by each county.

"This means the federal government authorizes national programs and a majority of the funding and the state government provides oversight and support but it is the 100 local social service agencies that deliver the services and benefits," according to the North Carolina Health and Human Service's website, the state agency that oversee DSS at the state level. 

NCDSS programs provide numerous services to North Carolina families including adoption, child protective services and child support enforcement, in addition to food and nutrition services, emergency and energy assistance, crisis intervention, foster care and work first family assistance, in addition to many others. 

"From birth to death, families count on county departments of social service for direct services that address issues of poverty, family violence and exploitation,” according to the website. “County DSS's provide citizens with resources and services to maximize their well-being and self-determination. We aim to prevent abuse, neglect and exploitation of vulnerable citizens — the poor, the children, the aged, the disabled and the sick — as well as, promote self-reliance and self-sufficiency for individuals and families.”

Ashe County’s Department of Social Services budget for 2012/13 was more than $55 million, with $4 million of that paid by the county, the single largest county expenditure. 

Federal or not 

“We don't even know what programs are offered,” said Poe. “If somebody says food stamps, that’s all we know about the program. Some programs are mandated and some are not, but we don’t know which is which.”

Poe said commissioners should be well informed on any funds, including both federal and state, that come into Ashe County.

“I believe we as commissioners should at least know (what is being funded and who is funding it),” said Poe. “There are going to be a lot of (state and federal budget) cuts coming down, and we need to know what is being funded and what isn’t.” 

Mitchell said that idea does have merit. 

“When you have significant dollars flowing into the county, even state and federal dollars, it's wise of a governing body to look at where that funding goes," said Mitchell. "It's always wise to at least look at what flexibility we have and decide if we could make effective changes. It's one more way to promote efficiency and protect the taxpayer." 

During the work session, Poe was also asked by Mitchell if she felt there would be any value in placing a commissioner back on DSS’s independent board. Poe said she did not. 

“I think we all need to know what is going on,” said Poe. “I would feel more comfortable if the county had more involvement than an independent board. Do they go through the books and the budget like we do? I just think we’re going to have to be good stewards of every dollar that we’ve got.” 

Chairman of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners Larry Rhodes sat on the Ashe County DSS’s Board for nearly a decade, and said he would need to be convinced to vote for any changes to the current DSS structure.

“My biggest concern is (with changing DSS), if it’s not broke don’t fix it,” said Rhodes, who said the same discussion took place surrounding mental health agencies in 2001. 

“(Former Director of North Carolina Health and Human Services) Carmen Hooker (Odom) had the wise idea that we would save a lot of money by taking mental health and putting them under different entities,” said Rhodes, who said he protested that move. 

“We had one of the best mental health facilities around right here in Ashe County,” said Rhodes. “The commissioners in Alleghany and I protested that move, because folks here were getting the care that they needed, but then they split it up and its been a pain ever since.”

Rhodes was referring to the collapse of New River Behavioral Healthcare in late 2011. The agency had provided mental health services in Alleghany, Ashe, Avery Watauga and Wilkes Counties for nearly four decades. 

In 2006, the five counties signed a 160A agreement that made NRBH the area’s sole mental health provider, serving more than 13,000 patients across the region and more than 1,000 in Ashe County alone. 

Unreliable financing reporting, ineffective management of patients accounts receivable and lack of operational controls over service delivery led to the organizations collapse in October of 2011. 

Rhodes said he doesn’t want to make the same mistake with DSS that he feels was made with NRBH. 

“Maybe not all counties (across the state) turned out like ours, but I saw the way (NRBH) was operating before and (the way they had improved), and we just royally messed that up,” said Rhodes. "I also think if Dr. Mitchell were to take over, the learning curve for her would be incredibly steep." 

If the county were to take over DSS, Mitchell agreed that she would have an incredible amount of information to learn quickly. 

"It would require diving into the numbers, which services are mandated and which are not," said Mitchell. "Much of DSS is structured around entitlements, and that could almost be looked at as a separate form of government management." 

Entitlements are designed to serve populations of people that meet program criteria, including "food stamps," now formally known as Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP), student loan programs including Stafford and PLUS loans, Medicaid and Social Security Disability (SSI). 

"By their definition, if someone meets the criteria for those programs, they get the benefit," said Mitchell. "Each program takes funding from different sources and is designed to meet different needs. To run those programs effectively, you really need an in depth understanding of all those factors. Whether we take that step or not would be totally up to the commissioners." 

No action was taken during the Jan. 7 session, but commissioners did direct Mitchell to begin researching social services at the county level. 

For more information and stories, see Ashe Mountain Times.