Editorial: County commissioners take on project that could become major restructuring

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 13, 2020

Rowan County commissioners may have just taken on one of their most ambitious projects yet or a relatively small staffing change. The scale of the change ultimately depends on which route commissioners take.

Prompted by concerns related to the Environmental Health Department, commissioners last week received a presentation from County Manager Aaron Church outlining a range of options for combining human service agencies — the largest being the Health Department and Social Services. The Environmental Health Department is a little-discussed part of county government that has a critical role in public safety, handling things ranging from food and lodging inspections to septic systems.

Commissioners Chairman Jim Greene on Tuesday specifically said issues with the Environmental Services Department have led to wait times for inspections of up to 10 weeks. Greene was right in saying 10 weeks, 2.5 months, is not acceptable.

The key questions remain whether merging human service agencies or changing how oversight works is the right solution.

Because of the department’s critical role, it is worthwhile to explore options while allowing recently-implemented compensation boosts to work. Among other things, commissioners have allocated a portion of the $257,935 total approved last month to provide $5,000 bonuses to successful applicants for open positions.

But money alone won’t solve problems.

Public Health Director Nina Oliver, who oversees the Environmental Health Department, says she is already putting a plan into place that will “increase efficiency, reduce the waiting time for an on-site evaluation and ultimately serve you better.” In a letter posted on the county’s website, Oliver says the waiting time for a soil evaluation is specifically what has had wait times of 8-10 months.

Commissioners, meanwhile, received a presentation showing options that ranged from creating a combined public health authority with Cabarrus County to dissolving one or more existing oversight boards and taking on those responsibilities themselves. Commissioners could have direct oversight over social services and/or the public health director. Alternatively, they could direct Church to hire a director who oversees the social services and health departments.

Combining with Cabarrus County could get complicated quick, as it has a department for human services and an entity that’s separate from county government that acts as its health department — the Cabarrus Health Alliance.

Commissioner Craig Pierce said he liked an option that would make Rowan County commissioners the health board. And that seems like a solution that would be most directly related to the problem of long wait times for inspections. Pierce said he did not want to combine the Department of Social Services with the Health Department. Commissioner Mike Caskey favored what Pierce said he opposed, supporting the creation of a consolidated human services agency that would involve the dissolution of the health and social services board.

Commissioners didn’t take any action last week, but asked to have the topic on the agenda again in November. Even if they decide to move forward with a plan then, it could be months before they’re ready to finalize things.

For the moment, commissioners should ensure that there’s enough support in the existing structure of county government to solve the immediate problem while contemplating other solutions and weighing the benefits and the costs of any plans they like best.