Head of DSS speaks out
by James Howell
Donna Weaver, the director of Ashe County’s Department of Social Services, appeared before the county’s commissioners Monday during their regular meeting to address recent comments by some board members about a lack of understanding of how DSS operates and her concern the comments may have given the public the impression DSS is not operating efficiently
“I was upset by the comments in the papers,” said Weaver. “It saddens me that I have to be here in front of you – I’ve always considered myself as your partner.”
While speaking to the commissioners in the almost full boardroom in the county courthouse, Weaver responded mainly to Commissioner Judy Porter Poe’s comments about not knowing which DSS programs were mandated.
During the Jan. 7 meeting of the commissioners, Poe made the following statement during a discussion about the possibility of restructuring the department; “DSS has more than a $50 million budget, and as commissioners, we know almost nothing about it.”
In responding to Poe’s comments, Weaver said, “on April 4, 2011, I spent two and a half hours explaining my budget from top to bottom,” said Weaver while holding an armful of reference material about the department, its operations and its finances.
“(And) on March 14, 2012 I went over the budget with Pat Mitchell,” said Weaver.
Weaver also said she believed the county commissioners have had plenty of opportunities to learn more about the department, but never sought her out for help.
“Not one of you has asked for training,” said Weaver. “The only member of the BOC that ever asked for training was George Yates.”
Weaver also said she was more than happy to share her resources and information with the board.
Weaver then offered the commissioners a detailed accounting of the services DSS offers.
All of the programs, she said, are mandated except for adult daycare services, which was approved by the BOC using information provided each year by the state.
Every year on Feb. 15, the state sends to each county DSS what the county can expect in state budget assistance for the upcoming fiscal year. That document, which was 64 pages this year for Ashe County, allows the county to plan for its local social service funding for that fiscal year.
The budget estimates lists all of the programs and points out how much money the state estimates the county will receive for each program.
Each one of the over 30 programs has different matching rates from the federal, state, and county government. The Food and Nutrition Program (food stamps), for example, is funded 100 percent through federal money.
On the other hand, the Special Assistance Program, which provides monies for those eligible for rest home-level care, doesn’t receive any federal monies, but receives a 50/50 match between state and county funding.
After the budget packages come to Weaver, she is instructed to give the budget estimates and narrative to the county manager, the county commission chairman and the chairman of the DSS board.
Another resource available to the commissioners is a statute book called “Social Services and Related Laws of North Carolina.”
“If you would like one, I will purchase one for you,” said Weaver to the BOC.
This book contains all of the statutes that governs social services in North Carolina. Statute 108a.-24, for example, offers detailed information about public assistance programs like food stamps, medicaid, and right to work.
The book also contains all of the responsibilities of the county, DSS director, and DSS board. One of the responsibilities listed for the county says the county “shall” levy sufficient taxes for certain programs.
During Monday’s BOC meeting, Weaver explained how much money she has saved the county over the past few years by routinely keeping the Ashe County DSS under budget
Weaver also listed how much money from DSS budgets went unspent over the past six years:
• In the 2006-2007 budget, the DSS recorded $727,849 in unspent monies.
• In the 2007-2008 budget, the DSS recorded $730,328 in unspent monies.
• In the 2008-2009 budget, the DSS recorded $819,860 in unspent monies.
• In the 2009-2010 budget, the DSS recorded $1,152,895 in unspent monies.
• In the 2010-2011 budget, the DSS recorded $1,017,826 in unspent monies.
• In the 2011-2012 budget, the DSS recorded $1,020,274 in unspent monies.
“I don’t call that inefficient of ineffective,” said Weaver during the meeting. She also said this money the DSS budgeted and didn’t use is returned to the BOC each year, and is partially how the BOC has managed to stay solvent during these tough economic times.
After the meeting, Weaver said she has never asked the BOC for additional funding.
“My method of budgeting is very transparent,” said Weaver to the BOC.
Part of the transparency is due to a report sent to the commissioners every four months that lets the BOC know all of the expenditures from the DSS.
The discussion during the Jan. 7 meeting of the commissioners was in response to a 2012 state law that allows counties to transfer DSS oversight from its current independent board to the county manager.
Poe added, during the Jan. 7 meeting, “to me, I would like to see it (DSS) put under Dr. (Pat) Mitchell.”
During the meeting, Weaver said if the BOC wants to study how other departments in the North Carolina operate, they are free to do that and Weaver would support them.
However, Weaver also warned them not to compare apples to oranges, because each of the 100 counties in North Carolina have different methods of operating social services.
Weaver also wanted to clear the air about how much money Ashe County kicks in to the DSS fund. According to Weaver, the county share is $4 million, not $8 million as originally reported.
“I take my job job quite seriously…I’m an advocate for the people in my county,” said Weaver
“I want you to know that I am your partner,” said Weaver. She ended her statements to the BOC by saying “I will continue to be your partner…I want it that way.”
Once Weaver finished her statements, the commissioners were welcomed to make make comments of their own.
Commissioner Gerald Price reminded Weaver that he didn’t make negative comments about the Ashe County DSS during the Jan. 7 meeting.
Price also said “I would like to take your training.”
Commissioners Gary Roark and Williams Sands also said they didn’t comment during the discussion on Jan. 7.
“I never said you were mishandling the department,” said Poe. “Maybe this has gotten run out of context.”
Poe reaffirmed the commissioners do not know how the money is spent in the DSS, and also said “I don’t remember getting all of the reports.” Poe added the BOC has been told in the past they couldn’t “touch” the department of social services.
“That doesn’t mean you cannot learn about the programs we offer,” said Weaver to Poe.
Afterward, Poe said “I agree with Commissioner Price, I would like to take your class.”
“I was very pleased to learn that was the opinion of one commissioner rather than a stance from the whole board,” said Weaver after the meeting.
Lynda McDaniel, a member of the social services board, also appeared before the Ashe County BOC to comment about Weaver’s performance.
“I want to let you know what tremendous faith the board has in Mrs. Weaver,” said McDaniel. She also said even though the DSS staff is constantly put under stress, “I am completely stunned by the amount of detail Mrs. Weaver gets in the budget.”
BOC Chairman Larry Rhodes agreed with McDaniel. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a budget as detailed as Donna’s,” said Rhodes.
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