Ashe County Manager Dr. Pat Mitchell has been given the task to collect information about switching the Ashe County Department of Social Services to a department overseen by the county rather than an independent board.
This issue arose during the board of commissioners meeting on Jan. 7 when Ashe County Commissioner Judy Porter Poe said the board doesn’t know how the money from the DSS fund is spent.
“DSS has a more than $50 million budget, and as commissioners, we know almost nothing about it,” said Poe during the meeting. She added “to me, I would like to see it put under Dr. Mitchell.”
Placing a county manager over DSS is now an available option thanks to HB 438, which passed in 2012. This bill gives county commissioners the opportunity to dissolve the independent board that oversees the DSS and place social services under Dr. Mitchell.
According to Mitchell, the total budget of the department of social services is approximately $50 million, with $8 million coming from local funding.
Despite being funded in part by the federal and state government, social services are administered by each county, except for some state supervision.
Poe listed several of the problems Ashe County’s DSS struggles with, including oversight for food stamps. She also said the mental health situation in Ashe County has become “scary.”
BOC Chair Larry Rhodes agreed that DSS should be held accountable, but he said the idea of having all the services funneled through one person is also “scary.”
Social services has several different programs, including some entitlement programs, along with some discretionary programs. Mitchell agreed with Rhodes about the difficulty of trying to manage such a large fund with so many different programs.
“There is a steep learning curve – a great deal of learning about what you have say over and what you don’t,” said Mitchell.
According to Mitchell, Poe’s statement that the BOC “doesn’t know how the money is spent” is true only in the sense that many people don’t understand the programs of the department of social services, but that isn’t a factor of bad management on behalf of the DSS board.
Rhodes, who was a member of Ashe County’s DSS Board for nearly a decade, also disagreed with Poe. Rhodes said the board has a good handle on the distribution of their funds and services.
According to Rhodes, even though some people wrongly take advantage of food stamps and other DSS resources, funding for the DSS still helps hundreds, if not thousands, of locals who are disabled, unemployed or elderly.
“Some people do slip though the cracks of the DSS, but that happens with all government programs and it doesn’t take away from the benefits those programs provide,” said Rhodes after the meeting.
During the meeting, Rhodes reflected on a similar discussion that took place in 2001 about the county’s mental health system.
“We had one of the best mental health facilities around right here in Ashe County,” said Rhodes, referring to New River Behavioral Healthcare, a mental health service that served Ashe, Alleghany, Avery, Wilkes and Watauga counties.
Rhodes attributes the 2011 collapse of NRBH to an attempt to save money by Carmen Hooker, former director of North Carolina Health and Human Services.
“Hooker had the wise idea that we would save a lot of money by taking mental health and putting them under different entities,” said Rhodes. “I’ll say this - if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
These questions about the county’s DSS were not resolved during the Jan. 7 meeting, and Mitchell is currently researching the potential impact of placing the Ashe County DSS under the supervision of the county manager.