Wednesday, November 14, 2012 11:52 PM
County to consider health board oversight
UNC expert to advise county commissioners on human services board consolidation
By Janet Conner-Knox and Olivia Neeley | Times Staff Writers
A UNC School of Government expert is coming to Wilson County early next month to meet with the Wilson County Board of Commissioners, county Department of Social Services board and the county Board of Health.
That daylong meeting will give county commissioners an opportunity to discuss consolidating oversight of human services agencies under a new state law passed last summer.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Thomas Lucas said nobody should read anything into the meeting.
"I don’t want anybody to jump to conclusions on what all of this means, because we haven’t decided any of the particulars,” Lucas said.
County Manager Ellis Williford said commissioners will have many choices to consider.
"They can decide to oversee the boards that exist or to replace the boards themselves, or combine the departments and get a board for the new larger combined department,” Williford said. "Or, they can decide to do nothing at all and let it stay as it is.”
THE NEW LAW
N.C. House Bill 438, which was signed into law June 29, gives those options to each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Part of the law allows county commissioners to abolish the board of health and take on the health board’s duties themselves, according to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Government.
If county commissioners choose that option, all they would have to do is adopt a resolution and hold a public hearing before taking control, the law states.
County commissioners essentially would become the county Board of Health, which would give them the health board’s powers and duties, according to the School of Government. Those powers include hiring and firing a health director, which solely was at the health board’s discretion before the law was enacted.
Lucas, also a health board member, told The Wilson Times last month that he was aware of the law.
N.C. Association for County Commissioners officials have said the law gives counties the flexibility to choose what’s best for each community. A previous law prevented any county with a population of 425,000 or under from exercising those options. The new law removed that population threshold, giving every county the authority to restructure human services boards or agencies.
While county commissioners have budgetary control over human service agencies, they don’t have direct control. Officials said the new law provides a better way to deliver services that best fit community needs.
Other broad options of the law include restructuring both the board of health and the health department or the county department of social services or the board of social services. County commissioners aren’t limited to which part of the law they choose to implement. Commissioners can implement one or all of those options.
NO PLANS PRESENTLY
All of the county commissioners interviewed said they don’t have any course of action in mind right now.
Commissioner Leslie Atkinson said he expects the meeting will be a learning experience.
"This will be a first for me and all of us, really,” Atkinson said. "I’m not sure what to expect or to look for. I intend to go in with an open mind.”
Commissioner Rob Boyette said the idea that commissioners should have the option to become more involved with their human services agencies is not a new idea.
Boyette said that discussion has taken place at statewide county commissioners’ meetings and other legislative conferences.
"What we are going to do is learn about the new law, the processes and procedures,” Boyette said. "Understanding the law is the most important thing to do.”
Wilson County commissioners voted in November to put a human resources director in place to handle any personnel changes that may take place in case of a merger.
"The HR director will be needed to help in the conversion of human services agencies to the county personnel system when the consolidation takes place,” a report to reorganize the HR department states.
Commissioner Roger Lucas said he hopes to go to the meeting and learn which options commissioners have, but he isn’t anxious to take over a department’s board.
"There is a lot I’m sure I will learn, but I am not anxious to take over those boards and I don’t feel I have the expertise to make decisions for those boards,” Roger Lucas said. "Having oversight of it may be a better option.”
Roger Lucas said those boards need people who specialize in knowing how to serve the people who come to those agencies for help.
"Am I happy with (Health Director) Felix Meyer? No,” Roger Lucas said. "But I’m open and ready to listen. I don’t know what route we will take,”
Lynette Tolson, executive director of the N.C. Public Health Association, expressed concerns included county commissioners’ lack of knowledge about health-related issues and the potential for health issues to become politicized.
"You are dissolving a public board that runs your local public health system,” Tolson previously said. "That’s what public health is. It’s the community.”
If county commissioners took control of the health board, the law requires them to put an advisory health committee in place. That advisory committee would essentially mirror what an actual health looks like, but without the power to make any decisions.
UNC School of Government faculty members said county commissioners have discretion over who is appointed to that advisory committee. Officials said commissioners could appoint the sitting health board members, appoint all new members or select some new and some old members.
County commissioners unanimously approved an Aug. 6 resolution calling for the health board to take appropriate measures after Meyer, the current county health director, fired at least two employees who successfully challenged their dismissals in court.
The commissioners’ resolution called for the health board to "review the acts and actions of Felix Meyer regarding termination of employees and take such actions as may be appropriate.”
The Wilson County Board of Health adopted a procedure for the county health director on Oct. 9.
The resolution followed several employee firings by Meyer and subsequent legal settlements. The county has settled two complaints with two employees Meyer fired. One settlement was more than $255,000 and also included attorney fees and court costs.
The Oct. 9 health board directive states that the "health director, prior to the dismissal of an employee under his responsible charge, shall consult with the Wilson County Health Department attorney to determine that the department has fully complied with all procedures and policies set forth in the Wilson County Personnel Policy Resolution; the State Personnel Commission Procedures; and applicable federal rules and regulations.”
It also states that "in addition, prior to the actual dismissal, the director shall inform the Wilson County Board of Health chairman of the pending dismissal and certify that the above policy has been followed and proper documentation justifying the pending dismissal is in the employee’s personnel file.”
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