Giant Human Services Dept Practically Running Itself



July 10, 2014

Things are apparently running so smoothly in Guilford County’s “headless” Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), that it makes you wonder if the county should call off the search for a head of that department and just pocket the $200,000-plus a year it’s going to cost to hire a new director with benefits.


Speaking of power vacuums, Guilford County’s leadership might also wonder whether it needs to proceed with plans to name any members of a new Human Services Advisory Committee, meant to help the Board of Commissioners run the department that, with almost 1,000 employees, contains nearly half of the county’s workers.


The Rhino Times is usually the first one to hear complaints from any county department when things aren’t running smoothly, and one interesting development is that, with no director in charge of the new department and no advisory board overseeing it, complaints to the Rhino from both divisions of DHHS have fallen to near zero.


The new human services department was formed in late May when the Board of Commissioners voted to merge the Department of Public Health and the Department of Social Services (DSS) and do away with the two boards that oversaw those departments.  Control of the giant new department fell to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, and so far the department seems to be no worse under the commissioners.


The social services division of the human services department is largely being run by Assistant Division Director Myra Thompson, while the health division is being run by Merle Green, who used to be the county’s health director back when there was a health department to direct.


Green, who has applied for the county’s new human services director job, is hoping she’ll end up in charge.  That decision, which lies in the hands of Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing, is down to two or three finalists.  Lawing is expected to announce his decision soon.  No one is saying if Green is one of the finalists for the job, but she was one of the final six.


While the commissioners are taking a backseat in the search for a director, they are the ones who will appoint a Human Services Advisory Board, and right now the big question is whether the commissioners will appoint former members of the extinct Board of Public Health and Board of Social Services to the new board.  The prospects look a lot better for ex-health board members than for members of the former Board of Social Services since one of the reasons the commissioners stated for merging the departments and taking control was a lack of oversight of social services.


The commissioners concerns about DSS came to a head when DSS Director Robert Williams resigned amid a scandal of enormous proportions in late March.


The commissioners have never voiced similar concerns about the county’s health board; however, those board members were caught in the crossfire when their board was eliminated in the merger.


Another thing working in the favor of health board members who would like to continue serving is that the new advisory board, just like the former board of health, must by law include health professionals in specific occupations  – a dentist, an optometrist, a veterinarian, a registered nurse and a licensed pharmacist.  The law has no such requirements for social services professionals.


Chairman of the Board of Commissioner Bill Bencini said there are still a lot of questions that the commissioners will answer later this summer.  He said the new board is more likely to look like the former Public Health Board than the Social Services Board, albeit a bigger version.


“The structure is similar to the health board,” Bencini said of the advisory committee, “except that you can add people.”


Bencini said it would be fair to give the strongest consideration to former board members who in some cases had a lot of time left on their terms.


Commissioner Alan Branson, who served on the county’s board of health before it was disbanded, said there is a lot of interest in the newly formed positions on the board that will help oversee one of the county’s most important departments.  He said he believed many who served on the board of health have a strong interest in serving on the Human Services Advisory Board and the commissioners are ready and equipped to make those decisions.


“I think you’ll see us move pretty quickly on restructuring,” Branson said.


He also said there has been a lot of talk about the commissioners not being ready to suddenly take over the reigns of the department – but he added that the new department didn’t seem to be suffering under the commissioners.


“We’ve been on top of it,” Branson said.  “The employees give us input.”


Branson also said the commissioners know a lot more now about what’s going on in the county’s health services and social services than they did just a few months ago.


“I think overall a lot of things were being swept under the rug,” he said.


Commissioner Ray Trapp, who served on the Board of Social Services before it was done away with, said things are running smoothly from what he can tell.  He said Thompson has really stepped up and kept the commissioners informed on social services contracts and other matters.


Commissioner Hank Henning said there were going to be some bumps in the road in the transition to a single large department, but he added that right now Guilford County has a great opportunity to set things straight.


“I think with DSS, there had to be a culture change,” Henning said.


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