JEFFERSON — Donna Weaver, director of Ashe County’s Department of Social Services, announced Tuesday night following a public hearing held by the Ashe County Board of Commissioners that she will be retiring this year.
Weaver, who has been with the agency for more than three decades, said her last day will be Dec. 1, 2015.
In a letter addressed to the Ashe County Department of Social Services Board of Directors, Weaver said she is choosing to retire as the past two years have been “unnecessarily difficult.”
“I have been needlessly micromanaged, threatened about who I will report to, had unnecessary work created for me and my staff, and unfair angst created for other agencies with whom I closely work,” Weaver wrote. “For two years, I have endured lack of basic professional courtesy, respect, genuine collaboration or trust from county leadership. My job is difficult enough without interference. Given the current circumstances that is unlikely to change.”
Weaver’s decision follows two public hearings hosted by commissioners this week as they consider dissolving the agency’s oversight board. Commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to postpone their decision in order to consider information gathered from both hearings.
Signed into law in 2012, House Bill 438 grants county commissioners authority to abolish the county’s DSS board and assume it’s basic responsibilities. A few neighboring counties have already dissolved their own DSS boards including Watauga County in May 2013 and Wilkes County in July 2015.
According to Commissioner Larry Rhodes, only 25 of North Carolina’s 100 counties have decided to dissolve their DSS board.
DSS board responsibilities
The DSS board is comprised of five board members — two appointed by county commissioners, two appointed by the state and the fifth appointed by the first four members.
“If they dissolve the board of social services, then what they are doing essentially is taking over the role of the board themselves and the legal responsibilities which our board members get paid for,” Weaver said.
According to Weaver, the DSS board has four basic responsibilities including:
•Authority to hire and fire the director of DSS;
•Responsibility to set up any fee structures if there are services developed with no state requirements.
•Know the resources and services available for citizens in Ashe County and to advocate for those programs and for any deficits of programs that are needed.
•Help present the annual budget to the board of commissioners.
If dissolved, Weaver’s position as the DSS director would be supervised by County Manger Sam Yearick.
For Weaver, dissolving the DSS board could mean big changes for DSS.
“It could change drastically depending on the philosophy and leadership style. It can change everything,” Weaver said. “If you have a really well educated board of commissioners that are interested in learning and who are dedicated to collaboration, there might not be a problem.”
The first public hearing was held on Monday, Nov. 2 during the Ashe County Board of Commissioner’s regular meeting and was extended into a second hearing the following night due to conflicts with the Energy Assistance Crisis Intervention Program, a federally funded program providing emergency assistance for families in heating or cooling emergencies.
Commissioners had previously expressed their concerns that employees of DSS who were assisting with the program on Monday would not be able to attend the initial hearing, leading to the creation of Tuesday’s hearing.
Lynn Robinson spoke during Monday’s hearing simply stating, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“There is nothing in my experience with DSS that requires any grand changes,” Robinson said.
Robinson fears that a change could create a period of time in which families are unable to receive their needed services.
“A change would leave a period of time in which there was turmoil and those families that require that safety net might not have the safety net for a period of time,” Robinson said.
Linda Thompson addressed Commissioner Jeff Rose during the hearing mentioning a previous statement in which Rose said he wanted to contact other counties which had already dissolved their DSS board. According to Thompson, there was no “apparent evidence of results or research” by Rose or other commissioners.
Her comments were later refuted by Rose who stated that he did contact other counties in addition to meeting with Weaver. Rose also stated that he is still undecided in the issue and would like to speak with Weaver again to address additional questions.
“I think we need to sit down and work together on it,” Rose said. “That’s going to be the only way we do what’s best for the citizens of the Ashe County. That’s what our whole goal is here.”’
Clerk of Superior Court Pam Barlow, spoke during the hearing in opposition of dissolving the DSS board and urged commissioners to do their homework.
“I urge you all today to do the research with some of the surrounding counties that have dissolved their boards and have gone under the commissioners,” Barlow said. “I don’t think it’s all roses.”
Ashe County isn’t like the rest
According to Weaver, Ashe County shouldn’t be compared to the other counties who have already dissolved their DSS board.
“As I’ve said to them (commissioners) before, you should never compare one county to another because they all operate differently,” Weaver said following Monday’s hearing. “They all have different kinds of leadership. The county circumstances and demographics are radically different.”
During Monday’s hearing, the DSS’ budget was compared to other counties who had smaller DSS budgets but larger populations than Ashe County. But Weaver says it’s not population that determines the budget, it’s demographics.
Weaver states that many of the surrounding counties have varying demographics compared to Ashe County which has a high aging population. When compared to neighboring Watauga County, Weaver says Ashe County has less students, a higher high poverty rate and more guardianship, medicaid and food stamp cases.
“Every county is different,” Weaver said. “You have to look at their demographics as to how those county budgets are developed for DSS.”
Before the start of Monday’s hearing, Commissioner Gary Roark called on Weaver to address rumors that had been heard throughout the community.
“I’d like to clarify a rumor that’s been going around and circulating through this county that me or this board is wanting to terminate you and fire 50 employees and eliminate the social service board,” Roark said. “I don’t know how this got started, but there’s no merit to it. It’s nothing but a false accusation.”
Roark encouraged any DSS employees to contact him day or night if they had any questions.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Judy Poe addressed another rumor that DSS benefits would be changing or become obsolete. Poe wanted to clarify that DSS benefits would not change.
DSS board member Terry Sexton also spoke during the hearing about the rumors, calling them ridiculous.
“It’s ludicrous, it’s ridiculous,” Sexton said. “People are just consumed by the rumors.”
According to Sexton, dissolving the DSS board would be a positive thing and that a change to the DSS board wouldn’t be noticed because the duties by the board are limited.
“Just because something has been a certain way for years, doesn’t mean that there’s not room for improvement in the system of delivery,” Sexton said. “I think this would be a positive step in the operation and in the system of delivery of services to the county.”
Why dissolve the board?
During Tuesday’s hearing, Nancy Henry presented a question to commissioners —why dissolve the DSS board?
“We all want to know why you want to even discuss taking over DSS,” Henry said. “We want to know what you’re going to do when you take over.”
According to Rhodes, this should be considered by commissioners before a vote is taken.
“The question that was brought up is ‘why?’ I think we do have some ‘whys’ to answer before this even comes up for a vote,” Rhodes said.
Commissioner William Sands also agreed with Rhodes.
“I never did understand why,” Sands said. “We’ve talked about streamlining and I have not heard a reason. I have not heard an explanation as to what streamlining will do, how we are going to be any better with it.”
Commissioners have not set a date as to when they plan to vote again on the issue.
Hannah Myers can be reached at 336-846-7164 or on Twitter @cmedia_hmyers.