County considers ending DSS board
by Kellen Moore
Watauga County commissioners are considering using new legal authority to dissolve the Department of Social Services board and take more direct control of the board's duties.
The five-member DSS board has an array of responsibilities,
including the hiring or firing of a director.
Two of the board members are selected by commissioners, two are selected by the N.C. Social Services Commission and the last is selected by the other four.
This system means that the county is required to pay for the director's position without having a direct vote on who gets the job.
"In my opinion, that is a completely inefficient system, and I'm all about efficiency," commissioners Chairman Nathan Miller said this week.
So, Miller requested that county staff draft a resolution that would abolish the board using authority granted in House Bill 438, which became law last year. The law enables counties to eliminate the DSS boards and either absorb their duties or create a consolidated advisory board to oversee DSS and the health department.
Miller said his request was not based on his feelings about the current board members or DSS Director Jim Atkinson, but rather a way to exercise greater oversight over the department's leadership and $5.2 million to $5.5 million annual budget.
Atkinson, who said he plans to retire in the next couple of years, urged the commissioners to reconsider Saturday at the board retreat, saying the change could making the hiring of a future DSS director politically driven.
"I hope you'll do your homework on this and not jump into it without a thorough knowledge of what it means and what the results might mean," Atkinson said.
Miller argued that the county has shown in previous department head decisions that it hires based on qualifications, not party affiliations. Under the current system, the DSS director could stop showing up for work and commissioners would have no recourse except cutting department funding the next year, he said.
Miller said he's heard "horror stories" in other counties about commissioners left powerless in the face of out-of-control social services departments.
"They run wild," he said. "They're taking babies right and left."
Commissioners Billy Kennedy and John Welch expressed some reservations about the change.
"You run a good organization, so why are we changing it?" Welch questioned.
Earlier this week, the Ashe County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to keep their current independent DSS board.
No action was taken Saturday in Watauga County, but the commissioners agreed to consider the matter again at a regular meeting in the future. If the board moves forward with the elimination, a public hearing will be held before they vote on the resolution.