OPINION: $12K payment to DSS director was appropriate

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Lloyd Hise
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I have been the attorney for Mitchell County for approximately six years this time, and have served as county attorney on other occasions going back to 1970. I remember only one other matter causing so much controversy as the $12,000 payment to the Mitchell County Director of Social Services given initially as a relocation allowance. 

I hope some background into the decision to allow the director to keep the money will, to some extent, calm the waters.

In October 2018, the county’s director of social services resigned to take a job with Hospice and Home Care of the Blue Ridge. The Mitchell County Board of Commissioners, in the capacity as Board of Social Services, conducted a thorough search for a replacement and received numerous applications. Five or six applicants were interviewed and almost unanimously believed Sara Ross to be the more experienced and qualified. Her background in foster care was impressive, and children’s services, including foster care, was in great need of better management and supervision. 

After the interviews, the Board of Social Services selected Ms. Ross to serve as director. As an inducement for her to relocate to Mitchell County, the Board of Commissioners included a relocation allowance of $12,000 as part of her salary and benefits.

 The payment was made in January 2019, and a written agreement required her to move her residence to a location within 30 road miles of Bakersville within six months of beginning employment. 

She commenced work on Jan. 2, 2019, and is still employed as director of social services. She has not moved.

On Aug. 5, 2019, a long discussion about the relocation allowance occupied much of the DSS meeting, but no resolution was made. Ms. Ross stated she had made some unsuccessful attempts to move to Mitchell County and had signed two contracts. Neither were closed – one because of a water problem and another because of a road access issue. She also said afterschool childcare was expensive and a relative provided that in Henderson County at no cost.

At that Aug. 5 meeting, no decision was made by the board, and immediate action was not necessary at that time. Under her employment contract, the board could take action at any time within three years of demand for repayment. 

The matter did become urgent in early October when the county auditor began inquiring about the relocation allowance and informed the county the unearned allowance would appear as an exception in the annual audit if it were still owed when the audit was complete.

The board of commissioners was faced with a serious dilemma. An “unclean” audit could have severe implications on credit rating, and borrowing money is necessary to partially finance the new school. At its regular meeting on Oct. 15, the board of commissioners voted 4-1 to convert the relocation allowance to a performance bonus. Since then, the $12,000 has been the “hot topic” in the local newspaper, on Facebook, Twitter, other social media, and at lunch in most restaurants. I have heard many comments, but no one has ever asked if Sara Ross deserved a performance bonus. 

The audit by the same auditors presented to the commissioners gives insight the commissioners already knew when four of them voted for the change from a relocation allowance to a performance bonus. A comparison of cost to Mitchell County taxpayers for social services between the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, and the year ending June 30, 2019, is impressive. Administrative expenses at DSS declined a paltry $77,000, only six-and-a-half times greater than the bonus. But wait, and read carefully. The cost to Mitchell County taxpayers for foster care services declined $511,000, which is 43 times higher than the performance bonus. Ms. Ross is not solely responsible for all these savings; an involved, active and informed board of commissioners has undoubtedly contributed, but Ms. Ross has changed the environment at DSS. She does not tolerate poor performance. Children are spending less time in DSS custody, more children in custody are being permanently placed or adopted, more families are being reunited, and fewer children are being housed in expensive institutions when a foster home is better and far less costly. 

The foster children and the taxpayers in Mitchell County are the primary beneficiaries of the new way of doing things at DSS. 

I believe the performance bonus was appropriate and certainly better than the alternative of firing Ms. Ross for breach of contract and returning to the old ways of waste and spend.

Lloyd Hise is the Mitchell County Attorney.