This story has been updated with additional information about the departments' merger.
With unanimous approval from the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners at its meeting Monday, county officials will move ahead with plans to consolidate the public health and social services departments into one human services agency.
At the commissioners' February meeting, Commissioner Julia Olson Boseman asked county staff to reassess the possibility of merging the two departments.
"I directed staff at the February meeting to bring us back a recommendation for consolidation of health and human services," she said in an email Tuesday. "The research showed that this change will allow us to have a more integrated service delivery with accountability to the County Manager and specifically implement the County's functional collaboration plan."
Part of that research included contacting the 37 North Carolina counties that have taken advantage of 2012 state legislation giving counties the ability to consolidate those two departments into one human services agency.
"Each county that was contacted that had consolidated their boards would do it again and are happy with their decision," Olson Boseman said in the email. "This will allow us to serve the citizens more efficiently and effectively."
Consolidation will become effective at the start of New Hanover County's next fiscal year, July 1, 2019, according to a Tuesday news release, which stated that commissioners will appoint a 15-person Consolidated Human Services Board to set a unified vision for the agency.
That new board, to which employees in the combined department will report, will replace the existing Health Department and Social Services boards. Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, who currently serves on the Social Services board, said Tuesday that the merger will also help eliminate the bureaucracy that now exists.
The challenge has been that Health Department and Social Services Department employees are governed by the N.C. State Personnel Act, so problems or grievances go through the state, Barfield said. "There's no direct link with [New Hanover County] HR."
Under the new organization, the reporting line to the county manager and assistant manager will be much stronger, and human resources matters will be handled by the county.
"There will be a lot more accountability," Barfield continued. "The county manager and assistant county manager are charged with oversight. There is a clear organizational chart."
There will not be a change in the programs currently offered by both departments; what will change is the way they are administered, County Manager Chris Coudriet said in the news release.
“This is an important policy decision for our community, and I believe it will serve our citizens better with more efficiencies and an improved client experience,” he said. “The goal is to make sure our clients and families have every opportunity available to them through the services of both agencies, and to make those service offerings as streamlined as possible.”
County Commissioner Woody White, who serves on the Health Department board, pointed to the benefits of merging the departments.
"Merging DSS with the Health Department is an opportunity for the County to use the principles of vertical integration to achieve more efficiency and operational outcomes for the people that are served by both agencies," he said in an email Tuesday. "Soon, both agencies will be housed in the same building on 17th street, and the timing of this decision aligns with the County's long term goals."
New Hanover County broke ground last May on a facility designed to house both departments, and work is underway on the new structure
at 1650 Greenfield St. The four-story, 96,000-square-foot building, slated for completion this fall, was designed by Sawyer Sherwood & Associate Architecture and is being built by Monteith Construction.
"Social services operations will move into the building once it is complete, making way for a parking lot to be constructed where the current social services building is," the release stated. "By February of 2020, public health functions will move into the building – creating greater synergy for the consolidated agency at one location."