Reckhow: GOP control means ‘bottom line focus’

Feb. 01, 2013 @ 08:45 PM

Regime change is rarely smooth, and county administrators are fretting about the ripple effects now that Republican and not Democrats control the governor’s office and the N.C. General Assembly.

But one county commissioner has a piece of advice for them: Deal with it.

Given top-down budget pressure, “we need to be a little more bottom-line focused when we have the political leadership we have right now,” Commissioner Ellen Reckhow told fellow officials during a Friday county budget retreat.

Reckhow came after several county department heads, Sheriff Mike Andews most prominently, voiced worry about the likely impact of the state’s future budgetary moves.

Andrews, like all five County Commissioners a Democrat, was particularly concerned about the possibility of cuts to mental-health programs having knock-on effects at the Durham County Jail.

He cited an ongoing General Assembly debate about the funding of group homes as one thing that could increase inmate counts, if it leads to a reduction of treatment options.

His argument took as a given the notions that untreated mental illness is a contributor to crime, and that a mentally ill prisoner should receive treatment for that condition. He said the jail’s commanders are already trying to figure out how the issue might affect its budget.

 The group-home argument in the General Assembly concerns a change legislators made last year to the state’s Medicaid program.

It left 1,398 group-home residents across the state ineligible for subsidized stays. The N.C. House on Thursday approved a bill that would restore their eligibility for the remainder of fiscal 2012-13. It’s not clear, however, that the N.C. Senate will follow suit.

Ellen Holliman, chief executive officer of Alliance Behavior Healthcare, said the dispute likely heralds other cuts to Medicaid that will affect the mentally ill.

She cited reports of a state audit that criticized the Department of Health and Human Services for overspending North Carolina’s combined federal and state budget for Medicaid by $5.4 billion – an 11 percent cost overrun – during the past four years.

The department’s new secretary, Aldona Vos, “is talking about staying within budget,” which means cutbacks because Medicaid’s budget has been “overwhelmed” for years, Holliman said.

Another department head made it clear the worry about state decisions affecting local programs and budgets isn’t just felt by Andrews and Holliman.

Board of Elections Director Michael Perry said there’s been talk that the General Assembly might shorten the popular early-voting period.

That would translate into more people voting on the traditional election day, and could force Durham officials to expand the number of voting precincts to handle the increased single-day load.

Given the need to hire temporary workers to staff polling places, the result would be higher labor expenses for running elections, Perry said.

Reckhow urged administrators to “scour the landscape” for efficiencies.

“Do a cost-benefit analysis with the programs you’re running; make sure they’re passing the test, that they’re well regarded and well-utilized such that you can make the case that yes, we definitely have to continue funding that.”