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Originally published: 2011-10-14 11:12:46
Last modified: 2011-10-14 11:13:08

Terminal diagnosis for New River Service Area

Matthew Hundley / (matthew.hundley@averyjournal.com)

New River Behavioral HealthCare has a short life expectancy within Avery, Wilkes, Allegheny, Watauga and Avery counties. In 2006, those five counties entered into an interlocal agreement creating the New River Service Area to provide mental health, substance abuse and developmental disability services in accordance with North Carolina General Statute 122C-115. Part of the original agreement preserved the right to amend the agreement. 

In light of recent revelations about the lack of financial and future viability of New River Behavioral HealthCare, commissioners from all five counties voted last week to an amendment to the interlocal agreement that would dissolve New River Service Area by Nov. 15. New River Behavioral HealthCare supervises and provide mental health services for 11 counties in total. The commissioners’ decision only affects services provided by New River Behavioral HealthCare within the five-county region covered by NRSA. 

At its regular on Monday, Oct. 3, Avery County Board of Commissioners passed three motions on the New River issue, including passing the motion to dissolve NRSA. In addition, it approved a budget amendment of up to $90,000 to help cover the cost of payroll for New River until the end of October in order to ensure that the institution’s services remain available in the coming month. According to County Manager Robert Wiseman, the $90,000 sum amounts to 10 percent of the overall payroll costs for the five-county NRSA, which reflects the approximate proportion of the services supplied to Avery County. Without those funds, the doors to New River would have closed on Oct. 14. Wiseman also suggested that any one of the five counties that declines to provide its proportional share of the operating costs may not be part of the service program that emerges from the ashes of NRSA.

The commissioners also passed a motion appointing Kenny Poteat, Avery County Board of Commissioners chairman, to serve on the “transition team,” which will take the place of NRSA’s 13-member board of directors to oversee the dissolution of the NRSA and the implementation of a new provider to meet the state mandate for mental health services.

At similar meetings early last week, four of the five counties approved the initial version of the amendment. Watauga County did not, however, insisting on several changes, most of which consisted of eliminating restrictive clauses. Because all the counties have to pass the identical amendments, Avery Allegheny, Ashe and Wilkes counties had to schedule emergency meetings to discuss the new version of the amendment. This also delayed the first meeting of the transition team by a full week. 

Avery Board of Commissioners held its emergency meeting at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 7, during which it approved the new version of the amendment, which it agreed did not increase Avery County’s liability or commitment. 

While the commissioners agreed that it was too early to speculate on the outcome of the transition, they did express an intention to preserve the positions of as many current personnel as possible. Commissioner Martha Hicks insisted that quarterly financial reports, which should have been provided for the past four years under the interlocal agreement, be provided regularly in the future.Commissioner Scott Heath, speaking about the motion to add a $90,000 budget amendment, explained that the funds were guaranteed in the event of financial difficulty for the NRSA. “We own up to our financial obligations,” said Heath.

Later in the day, the other four counties all approved the same amendment, officially putting the end-date of Nov. 15 on the NRSA. The transition team, composed of one commissioner from each of the five counties and each county manager, will meet at noon on Wednesday, Oct. 12, in the Commissioners’ Boardroom at Watauga Administrative Building, located at 814 West King Street in Boone, to determine the future of mental health services in Avery, Ashe, Allegheny, Wilkes and Watauga counties.