County balks at translation order
By Steve Herring
Published in News on November 17, 2010 1:46 PM
That is how Wayne County Commissioner Andy Anderson Tuesday morning described a new federal rule that would force counties to translate certain documents into Spanish or face the loss of federal funding.
Even though the plan under consideration currently applies only to paperwork associated with Community Development Block Grants, Anderson and board Chairman Jack Best are worried about the future ramifications of such a requirement.
However, commissioners eventually decided 5-2 that adopting the plan was no different from similar services the county is already providing in the Health Department and Department of Social Services.
Best said he was not worried about money and documentation already committed to the county's current Community Development grant project, but that he was more worried about the future.
"When are they going to change and make us speak Arabic?" Best said.
"As you have a certain percentage of your population (language) change you are going to have to adapt to whatever that change is," County Manager Lee Smith responded.
Smith said in the Wayne County area Spanish is the only other major language, but that in other areas other languages can be involved in such requirements.
He also pointed out that 27 different languages are now represented in Wayne County's public schools.
The rule comes down to money, not just today, but future funds as well, he said. While the rule in question is specific to the community development grant program, it could be expanded to other areas, Smith said. And about 50 percent of the county's annual gross budget of $160 million comes from federal sources, he noted.
The plan, tabled from the board's previous meeting, appeared headed for another delay when Commissioner Steve Keen made a motion during the agenda briefing session to remove it from the agenda. The vote failed 3-3 with Keen, Best and Anderson voting for the motion. Commissioners Bud Gray, Sandra McCullen and J.D. Evans voted against it. Commissioner John Bell missed that portion of the briefing, but was at the regular session that started at 9 a.m.
During the actual board meeting Evans' motion to adopt the plan passed 5-2 with Best and Anderson voting no.
"It sounds like extortion to me," Anderson said.
Anderson said he often wonders how the federal government can dictate such requirements when it doesn't follow its own rules.
County Attorney Borden Parker said it is not unusual for Congress to pass laws that apply to everyone else, but not to itself.
Anderson wanted to know what the effects would be if the county did not adopt the plan.
The county is currently finishing up the last house under its current Community Development grant and hopes to be completed before the end of the year, said David Harris of RSM Harris Associates of Goldsboro, the firm that manages the grant project for the county.
The cost of that final project is $85,000 -- money the county could lose if the plan isn't adopted, he said.
"I get e-mail every two weeks, 'Where is the Wayne County plan?'" Harris said. "The state is saying, 'We will freeze your funds until you adopt it.' We are proceeding with the last (Community Developent project) relocation. They have said failure to adopt the policy will result in the funds being frozen."
"That is the extortion per Mr. Anderson," Smith said. "We have obligated to the projects. I think this is coming down any way and I am already kind of living by these rules to start with. I am not surprised by them. In principle I do not agree with it, but I have to go, what am I really going to lose in the end other than I take some documents, run through Google (translation) and hand them to somebody who requested them because I am going to translate them on demand."
Smith said that in his almost nine years as county manager he had not received any requests to provide Community Development Grant files in Spanish.
That does not mean it isn't going to happen, Best said.
"If they do, we have to do it, but we already have that in DSS and Health," Smith said. "The problem is that now you are going to have those other monies sitting out there that you are not going to be able to draw down. That means the family I have committed to is not going to be able to relocate."
Harris said accommodations already have to be made for others with special needs such as those covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"It is an automatic part of providing service to a person who has special needs regardless of whether it is language, whether it is a disability, whether it is a mental disability. It is just all part of service," he said.
"So if we vote against it we are voting against something we are already doing?" Mrs. McCullen said.
Yes, Smith said. The county is already converting files into Spanish in the Health Department and Department of Social Services, he said.
"This is really just a document issue, we can do the translation," Smith said.
Newer documents, already in a digital form, would not be an issue to translate, he said. The problem would arise if the federal government requires the filing cabinets full of older documents be translated. It has not yet been made clear what will be required, he said.
The county also is using incentives to get its employees to learn conversational Spanish -- a 2.5 percent pay increase if they obtain and maintain certification of proficiency, he said.
Smith said he has received complaints from people who do not like that the county has an option to listen to telephone answering messages in Spanish.
However, it is a requirement and a lot of the Health Department and Department of Social Services customers are Hispanic -- paying customers with insurance, he said.
Keen said that the county is a bilingual society and that he thinks it will continue to grow.
"I think you are doing a good job recognizing that," he said.