Betty's In Charge

Is Dallas County's most explosive bureaucrat ruining the health department?

County Judge Lee Jackson admits Price "pushed hardest" for Culbreath's appointment to lead the merged departments, but says her performance as the human services director made her the obvious candidate for the job.

"It was a pretty short transition from the discussion about an interim directorship to whether there was some possible synthesis between the two departments," Jackson says. "Almost instantly, it [the merger] became a permanent possibility. As soon as we began that discussion, Betty Culbreath was one of the first, if not the first, names to be suggested."

The discussion lasted most of September, but the court's public agendas contained no mention that a merger was being planned. All discussion took place behind closed doors, under the premise that the court was simply discussing a personnel matter.

On October 1, the court formally announced Farris' resignation and appointed Dr. Eunice Stanfield, a staff physician, as the health department's acting medical director. No mention of a merger was made in the minutes of the court's agenda, but clearly the court was already moving in that direction. Culbreath had been lobbying in favor of the idea for weeks.

Culbreath had informed the court by memo that a merger could save the county about $71,044 annually, mostly savings from Farris' $126,792 annual salary. Money from Farris' salary--which was meager compared to those of private physicians--would instead be used to give raises to Culbreath and her soon-to-be announced assistants.

"The proposed merger of Dallas County Human Services with the Dallas County Health Department is a good idea and will work," Culbreath wrote the commissioners in a memo dated September 24. "The full impact of the merger should be realized during the next 90 days."

On October 8, the commissioners voted unanimously to merge the departments--and make Culbreath the director of the new Dallas County Health and Human Services Department.

No one is saying that Culbreath doesn't have the skills to manage the new mega-department's 217 full-time employees and its $33 million budget. She is good at getting ducks in a row. But Culbreath's new job description is to protect the health of the county's 2 million residents. And no matter what she says about the so-and-so doctors, that's a whole new ball park for her.

Betty Culbreath says she hasn't forgotten that it took her 12 years to land in her expansive office overlooking Stemmons. When she moved into it, she brought with her an old chair that now stands sentry in the corner.

"Every day I look at that chair because, you see, I know where I come from," Culbreath says. "I know where I can go back to, and I ain't scared to do that."

The chair--its vinyl upholstery split by time and wear--was assigned to Culbreath in 1985 when she began her ascent as a career county employee. While Culbreath says she has discovered that public service is her mission in life, you could also say that public service sure beats Culbreath's former life in the private sector.

From October 1983 until June 1985, Culbreath was in charge of store security at Eckerd Drugs, where she was assigned the task of controlling loss prevention. The job paid $21,000 a year.

In the summer of 1985, when Culbreath was laid off from her job at Eckerd, she went to work as Price's administrative assistant in his county Road & Bridge District No. 3, where she earned $24,696 a year. Price referred her for the job. Over the next six years, Price consistently gave Culbreath great job reviews and steady raises. By 1991, when Culbreath was named director of human services, she was earning $55,000 a year.

As Price's longtime assistant, Culbreath quickly became known as a woman who gets things done--especially by her personal efforts to guide needy constituents through the confusing world of government agencies. Among dozens of Culbreath's legendary good deeds, she personally helped an ex-inmate get on the road to self-sufficiency upon his release from prison--to the point where she dug into her own pocket to buy him an identification card so he could begin job hunting. Another time, Culbreath bought a pink bicycle for a man who was laid off on Christmas Eve and couldn't afford to buy a gift for his daughter.

While Culbreath was taking on the burdens of so many others, she had her own serious problems as well. Her son, Dirk Culbreath, was a crack cocaine addict who ran afoul of the law several times because of his drug problem. (In 1985, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor theft; in 1992, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor handgun possession; and in 1995, he pleaded guilty to felony cocaine possession and was placed on five years of probation.)

Culbreath says she worked tirelessly for seven years to help her son.
"It's not a sore spot because he's a substance abuser," Culbreath says. "It's a sore spot because from day one that I found out my son was on drugs in 1992, I went everywhere that you could go to get some help for my son."

Considering her experiences with her son, Culbreath is--not surprisingly--a believer in a tough-love management style that treats employees like family.

"You got to discipline your disobedients, but you also got to praise 'em when they're doing good," she says, adding that she leads by example. "I wouldn't ask any employee in this building to do anything I wouldn't do. And I do it all. I move furniture. I move boxes. I mop. I clean bathrooms. I pat patients on the back. I do all of that."

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