They say you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone, but the other side of that equation is that, if something “important” is taken from you, and you don’t miss it at all – well, maybe it wasn’t really that important.
In mid-2015, the second most powerful person in Guilford County government – Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director Joe Raymond – up and left for greener pastures. That position was never filled and things have gone on as usual. At that time, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners put off a decision on whether or not to fill that position.
Now the board is ready to revisit the question of whether to hire a new director for the largest department in Guilford County government. Some commissioners say the county is long overdue to get someone in that spot, while others say there’s no need to ever fill the position, and some just aren’t sure.
Republican Commissioner Alan Branson said he sees no reason to ever fill it.
“I don’t think we’re missing anything,” he said. “I think you may see some discussion of it at the next meeting.”
Democratic Commissioner Carolyn Coleman has a different view.
“It should be filled,” she said
Coleman said that was the way DHHS was structured four years ago when the county merged its health and human services departments into one.
Anyone who wonders if there’s too much administrative overhead in government might find the current situation interesting: Even though the “critical” job has been vacant for a year and a half, the county doesn’t seem to have suffered one bit. The only really noticeable consequence from the ongoing vacancy is that Guilford County has been saving about $200,000 a year in salary and benefits it was paying for Raymond.
According to Guilford County Budget Director Mike Halford, the DHHS director’s position is still funded in the county budget each year – though at a reduced amount since it’s not currently filled and also because there is a presumption that a future director wouldn’t have a salary as high as Raymond’s, which was $160,000 a year.
That DHHS director oversees Guilford County Health Director Merle Green and Social Services Director Heather Skeens – and one can’t imagine that either of those two are eager to see the slot filled.
After the county merged the two departments about four years ago, Guilford County spent a great deal of time and effort filling the DHHS director job the first time around. The county eventually hired Raymond, who left his job as head of social services for Forsyth County to take the job with Guilford County.
After an extensive search, Raymond was hired on August 8, 2014, with a starting salary of $160,000 – making him the county’s second highest-paid county employee at that time. Only Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing made more. On August 7, 2015, a few hours short of making it a full year, he left Guilford County to take a job with a think tank in Washington, DC. At the time he departed, he was making $160,720 – the slight bump in pay was due to a cell phone allowance. Raymond walked away from DHHS, which has about 1,000 employees in a county government that has a total of roughly 2,300 employees.
Though Branson said he expects the issue to come up at the next commissioners meeting, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said the discussion may take place at the board’s annual retreat in early February.
Phillips said he can see both sides of the issue.
“The argument that could be made is that we need someone to hold our social service and health director quote, unquote, accountable,” Phillips said. “And, if you don’t have someone in health and human services who is trained in the background, how could that individual really be able to see the issues and address them effectively? I think it’s a valid question. I think it’s just too soon for me yet to have come to a conclusion.”
He added that the issue was open to the debate and he was willing to hear all sides.
After Raymond left in 2015, the board assigned his duties to the county manager.
Phillips said the county manager’s strength is managing people, but there’s a legitimate question of whether Lawing has the right training to run DHHS.
Commissioner Hank Henning said of filling the position, “It’s always on the table. I haven’t really seen the justification for it yet.”
He added, “I think, quite frankly, Merle and Heather are doing an outstanding job. They have some tough tasks ahead of them – especially Heather, coming off the heels of state mandates and the percentages she has to meet. And she’s been meeting them, so, from a metrics standpoint of what they’ve been able to accomplish, it doesn’t tell me that we need to layer them with more bureaucracy.”
Commissioner Alan Perdue sounds as though he’s on the fence.
“You have to evaluate the effectiveness of how we’re doing it now versus how it would look if we filled that position,” Perdue said. “To me, I put a lot of emphasis on whether Marty can handle it or not.”
This week, Lawing, when asked, presented both sides of the argument.
“It’s really up to the commissioners,” he said.
Lawing said he meets with Green and Skeens but does not do things such as go out into the community and help establish relationships with community groups to make DSS and health services more effective.
“I don’t have time to do that,” Lawing said.
Lawing also said handling the job isn’t a burden despite his many other duties as manager. He said he stays in close contact with Skeens and Green.
“We communicate a lot,” Lawing said. “We’ve been focused on getting each side of the organization to understand what the other side does.”
Lawing has a lot of employees to oversee, but many of the county’s 2,300 workers do not fall under Lawing. For instance, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department, the Board of Elections, the Register of Deeds office, the clerk to the board’s office, the county attorney’s office and others report to elected or appointed officials rather than the county manager. By contrast, the Greensboro city manager has many more direct reports – it includes every city employee except the city attorney.
Commissioner Ray Trapp said he thinks the $200,000 savings the county sees each year is a powerful reason not to fill the position.
“I’m not convinced, because I think we can spend that money better on programs that actually prevent people from coming back to DSS,” Trapp said. “I definitely think about it because I do think you need a trained health and human services person to oversee it – but I just don’t know where you find that person, because the whole state is brand new to consolidation.”
Many counties across the state underwent a large wave of similar consolidations due to changes in state law that allowed all counties to merge their departments.
One thing that might be a concern is that if they decide to fill the position, Green and Skeens will almost certainly both apply and that could lead to an uncomfortable situation for just about everyone involved.
In the summer of 2015, Raymond’s announcement that he was leaving stunned county officials. Two days before he resigned, he had met with a committee of commissioners and spoke for an hour and a half on the long-term plans for the department. That discussion was a detailed one about specific plans for 2016 and 2017 – but Raymond, whose bags may already have been packed when the meeting took place, didn’t mention at any point that all those grand plans would have to be enacted without him in the picture. Raymond turned in his resignation about 48 hours later.
Branson said at that time that he was never a big fan of Raymond’s. Branson, said Raymond, came across as a “slick talker and a fast talker” from the very beginning – even during the interview process. Raymond, who has a master’s degree from Harvard, was known for his frequent use of 50-cent words.
Raymond was an affable guy and certainly intelligent, but his stock in Guilford County government went down fast when he broke the unwritten rule of local government: When you take a job at that level, you are committing to stay for two years at the very minimum.
Also, many commissioners were frustrated back then that Raymond was brought in to oversee the merger of the two departments that went at a snail’s pace, if that. Raymond was still “planning” the merger when he left, but very little progress had been made in that direction.
One commissioner said that other applicants the county could have selected “would have been better than by a wide huge margin.”
Trapp said that when he was in the military, he saw how people got in positions of leadership simply by being there a long time, but he said leadership is a special skill.
“People in positions for a long time move up through the ranks, but if you aren’t a leader, you can’t do it,” Trapp said. “You can’t be scared to step out there and say, here’s my plan, and you shouldn’t be making 160 grand.”
Phillips said there are good candidates out there. He said he sat in on the interviews when Raymond was hired, and one finalist – an African-American woman from Florida – made a terrific impression on him and he feels like she could have really done great things in the DHHS director’s role.
In early 2015, Raymond said over and over, when asked about the speed of the process, that a giant consolidation of that nature had to be undertaken with extreme caution and it would take a long time to do it right.
This isn’t the only position Guilford County is saving money on by not filling: Currently, 185 of those of the county’s 2,508 positions are unfilled. In the year that ended June 30, 2016, the county saved about $10 million from unfilled or refilled positions. During the budget year, commissioners in the past have used that money to fund various unforeseen projects that came up or for things that they wanted to do that were not included in the budget for one reason or another.
In response to an inquiry, Halford wrote in an email, “For FY 2015-16, we under spent our total personnel budget (salaries plus benefits) by about $5.8 million. That’s just over 3 percent of the total personnel budget. Since we know we will always have some level of vacancies each year, I take some anticipated savings out of the budget before it goes to the Board. Last year, the amount I removed was about $3.6 million. So, you could say we saved about $9.4 million in total from vacancies that occurred during the 2015-16 fiscal year and some of that amount was anticipated in the budget.”
Halford added that part of that savings comes from refilling positions at lower salaries. New employees, usually with less experience, are generally paid less than those leaving position.
“Not all of the savings are county dollars,” Halford added. “In Social Services, for example, most vacancies are in positions that are 50 percent to 75 percent non-county funds. Some departments have positions that are completely funded by outside sources, so we don’t save any county money if they are vacant.”