Commissioners meet with TRHD

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Toe River Health District Director Diane Creek presents a slideshow to the Mitchell County Board of Commissioners Tuesday, Jan. 9, during a special-called meeting. (MNJ/Brandon Roberts)

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BAKERSVILLE – Mitchell County will likely remain a member of the Toe River Health District.

The commissioners had a special-called meeting Tuesday, Jan. 9, with representatives from the Toe River Health District to hear about the District’s programs, funding and future endeavors. 

Mitchell County’s inclusion in the Toe River Health District because uncertain in May of 2019 when the board chose to use only about $17,269 of local money to fund the TRHD’s $462,000 budget request and fund the rest with money accrued from the 2015 sale of home health.

Environmental health and the cost of services offered remained a topic of discussion and contention throughout 2019. It escalated to the point where Boone-based AppHealth had scheduled a meeting this past October to vote on whether to allow Mitchell County to join before abruptly canceling the meeting.

Commissioners Jacob Willis and Danny Burleson in a July 2019 meeting were the only two members of the board commissioners that would not agree to a meeting with representatives from the Toe Rover Health District. But after the Jan. 9 meeting, Willis and Burleson praised the TRHD, its employees and Toe River Health Director Diane Creek.

“On behalf of myself and our board, I want to apologize for the confusion, and I think it was genuine confusion on a lot of our parts,” Willis said. “At certain times when we’ve met, it became obvious that some of the information might not be out there. I appreciate you, and I appreciate the work that all of you do. It was never our intent to hurt anyone, but to make sure our citizens were getting the services they needed and were paying for. As far as my part of that, and whatever this board has done for our part of the misunderstanding, confusion, and sometimes the conflict and drama, I apologize to you and appreciate all the work you all do.”

Burleson thanked Creek for coming to the meeting and echoed the praises he has heard in the public about the TRHD.

“I’m happy to say that I have had no complaints,” Burleson said. “As a matter of fact, just the opposite. I’ve heard several people bragging on you all. As long as our citizens are getting the services they need and the taxpayers can pay and we can afford to, I’ll tell you what I tell DSS, I’m going to stay out of your way and let you run your business.”

Toe River Health District employee Jessica Farley presented a slideshow during the meeting highlighting the open houses the District hosted in Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties. She said 375 people attended the events overall, including 125 in Mitchell County. 

“A lot of people don’t know everything we do,” Farley said. “The goal of these was to educate people about what public health really means.”

Creek then presented a slideshow detailing the District’s funding, programs and staffing. 

“I’m out and eat at almost every restaurant in our county,” said Commissioner Matthew “Vern” Grindstaff. “I talk to a lot of contractors and so forth, and I think since we have begun these discussions, leaps and bounds have been made. I hear very positive comments and I’m thrilled to hear those things.”

Grindstaff said there will be ongoing discussions about the finances, which is “just part of the budgeting process.” 

“I appreciate the cooperation and the conversations we have had,” Grindstaff said. “I know there has been some rocky times, and I appreciate your diplomacy in all of that.”

Commissioner Jeff Harding, who represents the board of commissioners on the Toe River Health Board, said meeting with the TRHD was “huge” and was “a big step for all of us.”

“We’ve had a few bumps in the road, but everything is worked out,” Harding said. “Meeting with a group of people that offer a service for this county and everyone getting the same information and the facts being out there is important. As grown adults we have acted like grown adults.” 

Interim County Manager Charles “Chuck” Vines admitted he hasn’t been involved in the discussions, but acknowledged the detriments of a lack of communication.

“We need to communicate about what we do, because if it’s out and it’s open, then everyone understands where we’re at and where we’re going,” Vines said. “As long as you are up front with the county, they are going to be up front with you to make the right decisions for our taxpayers. It’s all about the people of Mitchell County and the people in the surrounding counties (served by the TRHD).”

Much of the divide created between the commissioners and the TRHD stemmed from environmental health, particularly restaurant, well and septic inspections. 

Toe River Health Board member Dr. Diane Walker addressed the commissioners, saying it’s difficult to keep a trained environmental health specialist on staff.

“They get trained, then leave to make more money,” Walker said. “Just keeping an environmental health specialist in this area is hard. It’s hard to keep young people here, and we have to pay these people more than we can afford to keep them here. There was a time when we couldn’t get people to even apply.”

Dr. Marvin Walker spent eight years on the Toe River Health Board. He told the commissioners the complexity of the TRHD can be seen with the numbers presented by Creek and although environmental health has been the controversial subject, the TRHD does much more than that. “(Environmental health) is a small percentage of what they do,” Marvin Walker said. “They’re charged with keeping our people safe and I think they do a very good job of that. I’m very impressed with them.”