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Island County creates new Human Services office

After years under the Island County Health Department’s umbrella, Jackie Henderson will have new rain gear.

The Board of Island County Commissioners appointed the longtime county employee director of Human Services Monday, retaining her current title but handing Henderson the reins to a newly-established department.

“I was excited,” said Henderson, whose title fails to convey her multifarious duties. “And very surprised.”

“It’s not often you get to create a new department in the county,” Commissioner Mac McDowell said.

The commissioners pledged their collective support to Henderson and to the department, lauding her abilities while candidly acknowledging the lofty journey lying ahead.

“We are going to support you every way we can,” said Commissioner John Dean.

Henderson has simultaneously coordinated mental health, chemical dependency and developmental disability programs. At any given time, the department has approximately 35 state/local, service-providing contracts.

The first staffing change for Henderson’s modest but cohesive group of five employees will be a part-time employee hire to help with the chemical dependency piece of her job.

The new Mental Health Initiative approved by the county commissioners in August allowed for a sales tax hike of one-tenth of one percent, the amount allowed by the state code. Money will be collected as of Jan. 1.

“We’re adding several new programs,” Henderson said. The money, the first of which should arrive in March, will finance programs designed to deal with mental health issues in the courts and jail, as well as in schools and in the lives of senior citizens.

Henderson is taking a calculating tack in approaching the job. She plans to let the funds accumulate before making a withdrawal. In programs like the various drug courts, money can be used to beef up the services. Others will take more time and planning.

“We’re going to phase in the programs,” she said. “We’re working on that. We have a tentative schedule right now.”

The first program developed from scratch will help the increasing number of people existing without medical insurance or who are not eligible for Medicaid.

“That is top priority,” Henderson said.

The human services director and her staff are chomping at the bit to get started in their new designation. Henderson, however, said her years with the health department were wonderful.

“It’s kind of sad,” she said. “The biggest plus being a separate department is having more autonomy and more visibility.”

Counties across the state have made similar splits once the human services programs grew to a size that warranted a separation. According to the 2006 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 30 percent of Island County’s population has a diagnosed mental illness and at least 10 percent of the residents do not have health insurance.

“This is a natural progression for us,” the new director said. “We’ve been meeting with counties that have done this and we’re learning the do’s and don’ts. We’re going to take it slow and do it right.”

Monday was an unprecedented day for the commissioners and for the county. In addition to forming the new human services department, the parks department was transferred to planning. Dean agreed with Henderson that some programs grow to a size that necessitates a separation.

“This is a good example of growing a program to the point that it more closely begins to meet the pressing needs of the public and cries out for being its own department,” the commissioner said. “Human services has long been a huge need and a priority here. Last year’s chairman, Mac McDowell, was wise to propose moving human services out from under the health department and make it an independent department. Island County has made a renewed commitment to taking care of people, and this action simply underscores it. I think the same will eventually happen with parks.”

Managing programs are old hat for Henderson. Organizing the myriad contracts and tackling other infrastructure issues will be the difficult parts of the job.

“It’s an incredibly complicated fiscal system,” she said. “We’re planning to hire someone to handle just that. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to make the transfer little by little over the next three months.”

Maybe the most exciting prospect of the split for Henderson is the added accountability that will come with being a separate department. She is eager to keep the public informed about what their tax money is purchasing.

“They can track how we’re doing and what the outcomes are,” she said.

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