Wilkes commissioners abolish DSS board

WILKESBORO — The Wilkes County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to abolish its Department of Social Services Board.

Keith Elmore, who represented his fellow commissioners on the DSS Board, cast the dissenting vote. “I certainly opposed the decision,” he said in a telephone interview afterward. “Let there be no question about that.”

Having served for 12 years on the DSS Board and 10 years as a commissioner, “I’ve seen both sides of it,” Elmore said.

Among his concerns is the amount of oversight the decision will require of commissioners due to DSS’s $160 million budget and its wide range of programs. Elmore said he also was disappointed that three of his four fellow commissioners did not attend any of the DSS meetings like they said they would when the matter came up last year.

Commissioner Gary Blevins, who attended a DSS board meeting and also volunteered as a Guardian ad Litem for the department, made a motion to table the abolishment of the board. Elmore seconded the motion, but it failed by a 3-2 vote.

Blevins, who said he had attended dozens of meetings with DSS officials during his years of service, said he made the motion to table the matter so commissioners could discuss the options available to them in the state law passed in 2012 allowing a county to exercise one of three options in relation to consolidation. It was because he said he felt a consensus among the board to move toward “a more comprehensive consolidation” that Blevins said he voted to abolish the DSS board.

“This was not what I thought should be the ultimate goal of the process,” he said. “It would be to consolidate all the health and human services agencies and then set up an advisory board of citizens … basically like we have now with the DSS and its advisory board and then have the commissioners step back from it.

“I hope that the other commissioners and all the members of the health and human services providers in the county will see that this is the most efficient and pragmatic way to operate effectively and that we will move to that in the not-too-distant future.”

As it is, Blevins said DSS and the Health and Human Services Department are seeing many of the same clients. Since the passage of the 2012 state law, Blevins said 30 counties have moved forward with some type of consolidation.

Vice Chairman David Gambill made the motion to abolish the DSS board, and it was seconded by Dr. Greg Minton. Chairman Eddie Settle also voted for the motion.

Settle said he and his fellow commissioners have been studying the matter for quite a while. “I just felt like it was the right thing to do,” he said.

DSS Board Member Larry Pendry was one of 10 people who spoke against abolishing the board at a public hearing held before the vote. “I was extremely disappointed that they chose to fire me and my fellow board members,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think it’s a mistake that in the long run will hurt Wilkes County, the taxpayers and the clients that DSS serves.”

Pendry said Tuesday was “a sad day for Wilkes County and the Department of Social Services in my opinion, but I guess that’s what politics is all about, isn’t it?”

Blake Lovette, vice chairman of the DSS board, said its members have a total of 35 years of experience, “and we all got fired … It’s just inconceivable for me to understand how three commissioners who never attended a (DSS) board meeting and know nothing about the operation of DSS could do a better job of assisting the management at DSS than our board.”

Lovette said he believed Gambill, Minton and Settle were the commissioners pushing for the dissolution from the beginning.

Ten people spoke against dissolving the board at the public hearing, he said. “No one spoke for it.”

Blevins said during a telephone interview after the meeting that the word “fired” was used a lot at the meeting by people opposed to the dissolution. “But never did any of the commissioners or county manager use the word ‘fired’ as a descriptive term for what was being done,” he said. “The chairman and members of the board were doing a great job.

“This is not about a poor performance by the DSS board. This is about changing with the times to create a more efficient system.”

Settle also said no one had been fired. “We just abolished the board,” he said.

John Myers, who has served on the DSS board for four years, the last two as chairman, said he would have liked to have seen the matter resolved in a way that would be beneficial to everyone. “I don’t think it’s going to build goodwill,” he said of the commissioners’ decision.

Myers said he did not attribute the decision to anything the DSS board had done. “I think they did it because they can,” he said. “The state of North Carolina gave them authority to take over DSS, and hopefully, the commissioners will see that social programs are not like any other program. They’re managed by the federal government …”

The Board of Social Services was a great board, Myers said, “and what I was saying (to commissioners) at the meeting is if you choose to take it over, give the same time that this board has given to DSS.”

Wilkes County commissioners first began pushing for more authority over human services agencies beginning with DSS after a scathing report issued against Wilkes County DSS on April 17, 2014, by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and complaints to commissioners from the public demanding change.

In the six-page report, the state outlined several deficiencies within the department involving leadership, oversight and record-keeping. The investigation began after state officials learned of a case where Wilkes social workers removed two girls from one abusive home, then placed them out-of-county in a home where they were sexually abused again.

One of the adults in the foster care home already had lost parental rights to her own children, and according to the arrest warrant reports, the two girls contracted an STD from the alleged assault in the foster home.

Kathy Chaffin can be reached at 336-258-4058.

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