GASTONIA Gaston County’s two largest governmental departments – health and social services – are about to merge into a unified operation.
With more than 600 employees, the public agencies spend multimillions serving tens of thousands of people with everything from food stamps to flu shots, Medicaid to child abuse investigations.
The departments have about 70 percent of the same clients in common and navigating complex systems can be a problem for them. Clients lacking transportation are bused at county expense to buildings miles apart.
In an effort to streamline services and make it easier for people to get help – and also save county money – Gaston commissioners in a 6-1 vote recently approved creation of a single Human Services Agency.
By late April, a new 18-member board of directors will replace the existing health and DSS boards.
A new director for the consolidated agency will be appointed and July 1 is the agency startup date. Details are still up in the air, but officials don’t expect major layoffs.
It’s a big step, but county commissioners Chairman Mickey Price thinks it is worth a try in a time of tight money.
For the past three years the county has dug into its reserve fund instead of raising property taxes.
“We’ve got to do something different,” Price said. “If we sit back and keep going down the same path we’ll continue to spend and dip into the fund balance – and have to raise property taxes.”
Consolidation of two major public agencies “could possibly reduce some spending,” he said. “We’re not sure how. We’ll know when we get into it. We’ve got to try something.”
Commissioner Tom Keigher, who cast the dissenting vote, said he wasn’t against consolidation “if it will save money and improve services.”
But he thinks the board moved too fast on the issue.
“As a businessman I know you have to have a plan,” said Keigher, who chairs the DSS board. “We’re merging the two largest departments in the county and we don’t have a business plan. Can this save money? Who knows? Nobody can tell you definitively.”
A wiser course of action, Keigher said, would have been to wait, study the issue more and “hear from the community.”
Among his concerns is the state at some point requiring the county to fund more of the programs.
“All kinds of things made me want to slow this down,” Keigher said.
‘Fears … and stress’
Gaston leaders began looking into a merger after the N.C. General Assembly passed new legislation last summer that allows counties of any size to consolidate public health and social services agencies. Until then, only the three largest counties – Mecklenburg, Wake and Guilford – were allowed to create the mergers.
The new law gave county commissioners new options for organizing and governing county human service agencies. Commissioners could assume the powers and duties of the local boards.
They could create a consolidated agency. Or they could take both actions, forming a consolidated human services agency and serving directly as its board.
Aimee Wall, UNC associate professor of public law and government, said counties are looking at consolidation with “lots of different goals in mind.”
For some, it’s about cost-savings. For others, it’s more about oversight and accountability or even personnel issues.
“There are a lot of variables,” Wall said. “This is brand new. In counties that are considering significant changes related to personnel policies, we are hearing about a lot of fear and stress among employees.
“I think some are concerned that they will lose their jobs because the agencies will be consolidated and downsized. But so far, we are not hearing about mass layoffs in counties where consolidation has taken place.”
In Brunswick County, county commissioners approved a merger of the two departments in September. The assistant county manager became the human services director and the county created a heath advisory board with heath professionals as members.
County Manager Marty Lawing said the main reason officials looked at a merger was because of problems with the DSS board.
“They didn’t get along,” he said. “They were dysfunctional and didn’t provide much support and direction for the director.”
As the departments came under direct control and management of the country, Lawing said meetings between employees and the human services director are producing some good ideas for gaining efficiency.
Counties where the boards of directors are talking, collaborating and working together “may not need to consolidate departments,” Lawing said.
“But it was the right thing for Brunswick County.”
‘No wrong door’
Gaston leaders visited Buncombe County, which began a modified version of merged social services and health departments in 2005. The county fully consolidated the departments after the new state law passed.
Former DSS director Mandy Stone became assistant county manger for health and human services. As the economy took a downturn, she said officials looked at ways to streamline administration and improve access of services to people.
The old Sears building in downtown Asheville became the focal point for an integrated “no wrong door” access system – bringing all services under one roof.
“We’ve asked consumers what they thought,” Stone said. “We’ve had wonderfully positive feedback.”
In Gaston County, the health department has 205 employees with a budget of $17 million – $7 million of that in county funds. DSS has 370 employees and a $45.7 million budget with $14.5 million in local dollars.
Ann Hoscheit, who chairs the Gaston health board, said health and social service agencies have merged at the state and national levels and “it makes a lot of sense” to do the same model locally.
She’s been named to the committee that nominates a Health and Human Services board of directors.
Gaston County Manager Jan Winters said the local DSS and health boards haven’t had any friction and have cooperated with each other and the county.
With consolidation “we aren’t trying to fix any problem,” Winters said. “We’re looking at improving access for many people in the community. We want … to make it easier for them.”
While the new system will probably save an as-yet-determined amount of money, “it will definitely improve services,” Winters said.
Doing things better
At a recent public hearing on the merger, Winters said nobody spoke for or against. He sent an email message to DSS and health department employees announcing the consolidation.
A health services director will probably be hired from within because the county isn’t looking to create another job with another six-figure salary, Winters said. Currently, DSS director Keith Moon and health director Chris Dobbins make about $110,000 a year each.
Winters said he assumed both men would stay on after the merger, but “I can’t guarantee it.”
“We haven’t yet developed a structure for this,” he said. “We’ll be developing a plan within the next four months.”