A potential consolidation of Sampson County’s Health Department and Department of Social Services will be considered in January after a split vote this week by the Board of Commissioners to move forward with the discussion.
There are essentially three options on the table regarding the consolidation of human services agencies, county administrative staff and legal counsel said.
The Board of Commissioners can assume the powers and duties of the Social Services and Health Department boards with no consolidation of departments; the Board of Commissioners can consolidate those agencies with the board itself acting as the consolidated human services board; or the Board of Commissioners can consolidate the agencies with the creation of an independent consolidated human services board.
UNC School of Government representatives spoke to commissioners during a special meeting last month, also attended by members of the Social Services Board and Board of Health, along with directors and key staff from those departments.
County manager Ed Causey said he thought the meeting went well.
“One of the things that was made very clear is that there are clear steps that must be followed in order to move forward,” Causey stated. “If there’s any interest in furthering the discussion on consolidation, the next step would be to authorize notice for a public hearing.”
A 30 days’ notice is required and that obligation would not be fulfilled in time for December’s meeting. A particular consolidation option does not have to be determined prior to that hearing, according to attorney Joel Starling, but given that commissioners will be considering all three options at once, notice must be given that allows for all of those possibilities.
Discussion at this week’s regular commissioner’s meeting was brief.
Commissioner Sue Lee quickly made a motion to set up a hearing to pursue the consolidation at the board’s January meeting, with the 30 days’ notice requirement more than fulfilled. Commissioner Jerol Kivett immediately seconded.
“I just think it’s a bad idea. I think we should just leave it alone and leave things the way they are,” Commissioner Albert Kirby said. The vote came 3-2, with board chairman Clark Wooten voting to move forward and Commissioner Harry Parker dissenting along with Kirby.
In July, Wooten asked Causey to investigate the feasibility of bringing human service agencies under the county umbrella.
At that same meeting, he asked that planning services be examined for a possible move to an independent county department, breaking from the joint operation it has had with the City of Clinton since 2004.
The board moved forward with that last month, approving in a 3-2 vote to implement a two-person county planning department, combined with the Inspections Department, that will cost slightly more — estimated $180,000 annually — than the current situation in addition to $63,000 in one-time costs. The move will take effect July 1, 2018, with the hiring of a senior planner and another planner to take place leading up to that date.
Now, focus is shifting to the human service agency consolidation.
In 2012, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that provided counties with new options for how they can organize and govern some local human services agencies. All counties are allowed, but not required, to create consolidated human services agencies that are either governed by an appointed board or by the Board of Commissioners.
Almost immediately after the law was enacted, several counties began exploring these new options and making changes at the local level. Kirby recalled when the legislation was passed. There were some informal discussions between him and Causey, dating back four or five years, about the issue.
They agreed at that time that having a human resources director position was key in any move going forward. That HR position and department has since established.
“It’s something to look at down the road,” Kirby previously stated of a potential consolidation, noting some savings in Columbus County as a result. Wooten noted similar success in Brunswick County, one of the first to engage in such a consolidation.
Often consolidation is sought to bring a more centralized approach to government services. That can also mean costs are cut through the elimination of redundancies.
Some 20 counties in the state have moved forward with consolidation since the 2012 legislation took effect. Cost savings is a consideration, but it is not the only one, Causey has imparted. Customer service and organizational improvement are other factors to be considered, he noted.
No potential cost savings have been presented at the Board of Commissioners meetings.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.