Mecklenburg County plans decentralize its human services

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio plans to change the way the county delivers services, breaking up centralized facilities such as the Wallace H. Kuralt Centre on Billingsley Road and building smaller centers closer to where clients live.

The master plan for county-owned facilities calls for a crescent of six service districts that swoops from east Charlotte around uptown and then south toward Pineville – where the latest census numbers show most of Mecklenburg’s distressed areas are clustered and spreading.

It would likely mean the county would sell the 40-acre Kuralt campus off Randolph Road that holds the social services and health departments – a prime development parcel close to the Grier Heights, Eastover, Elizabeth and Cotswold neighborhoods.

The old plan centralized services, but transportation is difficult for many low-income residents. A trip to the Kuralt campus or the Bob Walton Plaza on Stonewall Street uptown can take hours.

“This is going to change the way we do business, focusing on delivering services to where our customers live,” Diorio said. “We want to move away from the big campus approaches and have community-based delivery. The police and fire departments do it. So do libraries and parks. Why not do it with human services?”

County commissioners will get their first look at the plan at their Tuesday meeting. Diorio said the plan doesn’t require board approval, but the sale of properties and acquisitions do.

“Of course we want the board to endorse the concept,” Diorio said. “Once we start asking them to appropriate the money, they absolutely have to be supportive of what we’re trying to do.”

Under the plan, a county facility would be built in each of the service districts, paid for largely by money already in the county’s capital budget for other projects that won’t be necessary once Diorio’s master plan is executed. Proceeds from the sale of the Kuralt campus or the planned sale of the Hal Marshall building on North Tryon Street and the Walton property could go to help pay for the new facilities.

“We think we’ve got enough money in the capital plan between now and 2018 that we should be able to execute the vast majority of the plan,” Diorio said.

Price tag not set

This is the first time in decades that the county has addressed its facility needs, Diorio said.

Recently, she hired Dennis LaCaria, former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ facilities planning director, to oversee the county project and the disposition of four major county-owned parcels, including the Hal Marshall and Bob Walton properties and rebuilding uptown’s Second Ward into a mixed-use community.

The project is expected to take five to 10 years, she said. A total price tag hasn’t been determined – neither has what services will go into each of the six service facilities. They will be determined by what the needs are in each district using a variety of county data, Diorio said.

She expects social services and perhaps child support enforcement to go in each of the six facilities, but the health department would go into two new buildings along with a facility already built on Beatties Ford Road.

Facilities will be built on the fringe of each district to prepare for potential spreading poverty, she said.

An Observer story in August reported that pockets of intense poverty had mushroomed throughout the county since 2000, with 1 in 4 residents living in a distressed neighborhood in 2010, up from 1 in 10 in 2000. These neighborhoods have at least 20 percent of residents living below the federally established poverty level – for a family of four, a yearly household income of $23,850 or less.

The map of those distressed neighborhoods roughly aligns with Diorio’s crescent.

The plan, Diorio said, likely won’t drive up operating expenses. Department directors would have to manage “by going to their facilities as opposed to staying in their office and looking at everybody in one building,” she said.

Future growth

The reason for undertaking the plan was to prepare for future growth. According to the state and the Charlotte Chamber, Mecklenburg’s population should grow to 1.4 million by 2030, up 400,000 from the current 1 million.

“So clearly we’re going to have more needs and growth needs for the county’s facilities,” Diorio said.

Those added needs will require about 700 more county employees added to the 5,300 already on Mecklenburg’s payroll.

The master plan was already underway when Diorio took over as county manager in January. The county-hired consultant, WGM Design Inc. of Charlotte, looked at all 40 county buildings – some leased, but most owned by the county – and staffing and services dispensed in those buildings.

She wasn’t satisfied that the plan wasn’t putting services where they were needed.

“There was nothing innovative about it,” she said. “It didn’t address the nature of the way we want to deliver services. Instead of going up, we want to go out to where the people can access these services.”

LaCaria said Mecklenburg’s master plan isn’t modeled after other similar plans around the country. “It comes down to we know where the folks who need us are. So let’s go to them,” he said.

The current method worked when the county was much smaller, Diorio said.

“We tend to focus on things that people rally around readily like building schools and parks but we’ve never really spent a lot of time talking about these kinds of services and how we deliver them,” she said. “Employees who deliver the services are entitled to work in nice facilities. And the customers who access these services are entitled to nice facilities.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer