03/12/07 — Departments say they serve too many in too little space

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Departments say they serve too many in too little space

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on March 12, 2007 1:53 PM

Some of the problems facing the Wayne County Office Building, which houses the departments of Health and Social Services, are apparent even before walking through the front door.

Many of the building's windows are protected by metal bars because of multiple break-ins. And other parts of the structure are beginning to reflect the building's age -- nearly a century.

Health Director Jim Roosen and Social Services Director Judy Pelt said they believe the building, which is located at the corner of Herman and Ash streets, is supposed to welcome patients and residents to help them with their problems and to care for their needs.

The Department of Social Services alone averages about 4,000 customers a month, Mrs. Pelt said.

But none of those residents are greeted by a central registration desk after entering the building. Instead, they must find their way to two departments spread across five floors.

Although Social Services does have a registration area on the fourth floor, many find it hard to go there and register for services such as food stamps, Medicaid or Work First, Mrs. Pelt said.

The in-take area is located near the building's only elevators. Those who exit the elevators are usually already in the in-take line.

"It's a difficult decision to come up and apply for our services, and it's harder when we're so crowded that others can hear why you're there," Mrs. Pelt said.

After registering, many of those customers are asked to wait in the fourth floor's cramped waiting room. Depending on the reason a person is at the Social Services department, he or she could wait for as long as four hours, Mrs. Pelt said.

And improving the waiting room proves to be an impossible task, she added.

"I wanted to open up the room so people don't feel as claustrophobic, but the walls around it are weight-bearing walls," Mrs. Pelt said.

Small waiting rooms, where patients are forced to sit within inches of one another, are also a problem for the Health Department, Roosen said.

"The waiting room has no space between the chairs to make a patient feel comfortable," he said.

But Roosen said he is also concerned about the privacy of the department's patients. When a patient comes to the office, he or she expects to be able to tell an employee his or her ailment without others hearing that personal information. But several problems at the existing facility don't allow for that confidentiality, he added.

First, some of the patient registration desks do not have dividers, which allows people standing next to each other to hear each other's ailments. Then, the examination rooms are too small and some are not fully enclosed, such as in the maternity area on the first floor. With patients waiting on the other side of the wall, the examining room patient's information might be heard.

"We have laws about private information in a health facility. I don't want to violate those," Roosen said.

From the first floor to the top of the building, both directors said there are several things that could be changed to improve the quality of services they provide and make the departments more suitable for residents and employees.

On the first floor, Roosen said it's not uncommon to hear complaints about the floor's air quality from customers and employees. The damp floor causes a musty odor that doesn't help the health of tuberculosis or pregnant patients.

Some employees have complained that their sinuses constantly stay congested while they work. By the end of the weekend or their vacation time, many feel better but congestion symptoms return once they come back to work.

And returning to their desks is no picnic, they say.

"It can be a dreary place to come to sometimes," health education supervisor Carolyn King said.

Employees are usually surrounded by records with little desk space to get any other work accomplished. The department currently has to dedicate 1,800 square feet for records space.

Also, some registration areas, such as pre-natal registration, have leaks when it rains. Although some of the problems have been fixed, Roosen said he used to have to worry about records getting wet from ceiling leaks.

Space is also an issue for Social Services in nearly every room and floor the department uses. Mrs. Pelt said many of the offices are not large enough to support the amount of work each employee conducts.

On the fourth floor, the employees are given a break room. But the room, which is about 8 feet by 12 feet, is intended to serve more than 60 people.

The conference room is also an inadequate size, Mrs. Pelt said.

The Department of Social Services has almost 200 employees and Social Services and Health currently share a conference room on the third floor.

"The area's not big enough to have a complete staff meeting. We usually have to go to Herman Park or the Wayne Center," Mrs. Pelt said.

The conference room isn't even big enough to comfortably hold a staff meeting for the department's 22 supervisors, she added.

Space issues are not much better at the department's annex building off U.S. 117 where most of the county's social workers are stationed. Although social workers spend a majority of their time outside the office with their customers, Mrs. Pelt said they still deserve the same amenities as other county employees when they are in the office.

"They have no break room. The break room they had was made into a conference room and the conference room they had was partitioned into offices," she said.

Also, employees and customers have to share a communal bathroom.

The county commissioners have taken tours of both buildings and are considering ways to improve conditions for both departments.

During the county commissioners' annual retreat on Jan. 26, the board considered all of its capital improvement costs in the next five years. If the county uses some form of long-term financing, that would include $20 million in 2011 for a complex that serves Services of Aging, Social Services and Health.

One way that money could be used is to create a complex similar to a college campus using the 40 acres of county-owned land that once served as Wayne Community College, County Manager Lee Smith said.

Roosen said he likes that idea because the Health and Social Services departments serve many of the same people.

If the county is going to build a new Social Services building, Mrs. Pelt said Wayne should emulate the Wake County Human Services building.

"It's a huge building with real open waiting areas. It has a central area that directs customers where they need to go," Mrs. Pelt said, referring to the problems customers complain about in the Wayne County Office Building.

But if money becomes an issue for the commissioners, Mrs. Pelt said there are efficient alternatives that other counties have used. In Duplin, the county renovated an unused school building to house its Social Services Department. Jones County also has a nice human services complex.

Whatever the final solution, Mrs. Pelt said each Social Services branch and each floor of the Wayne County Office Building needs improvements.

"It's not a user-friendly area," she said.

But despite the problems and setbacks both departments face, Mrs. Pelt said they are still able to accomplish their goals.

"Our job is to serve the public ... with the limited space we have, I think we do a very good job of meeting the needs of the public," she said.