Gov. Mike Parson's staff will have two new department directors starting in the new year.
Valerie Huhn is Missouri's new director of Mental Health. Her first day as director is Saturday. Rep. Wayne Wallingford will leave the Missouri House of Representatives to head the Department of Revenue. His first day is Monday.
Parson's office announced at the beginning of December it had chosen Huhn, a longtime department employee, who had been acting as director since the beginning of November to lead DMH.
Huhn has worked for the state since 2000, and has served Missouri in the Division of Budget and Planning and departments of Administration, Health and Senior Services, Social Services and Mental Health. She became a deputy director in DMH about two years ago.
Huhn said during a news conference introducing the new directors that she's proud of the team DMH already has, which helps Missourians live their best lives.
"Right now, though, our biggest concern is the workforce," Huhn said. "Delivering support and treatment has been much harder over the last two years."
Men and women who do the work have continued to provide high-quality care despite an ongoing, years-long workforce shortage, and the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
During hearings in the Capitol chambers this past fall, Huhn and her predecessor, Mark Stringer, testified DMH has a severe and dangerous shortage of mental health workers.
Stringer testified Northwest Missouri Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center, DMH's 108-bed psychiatric hospital providing long-term in-patient care for adults in St. Joseph, had 74 percent of its registered nursing positions and 56 percent of licensed practical nurse positions vacant in early October.
"The work they do is not easy. And I'm so grateful for their sacrifices," Huhn said Wednesday. "I know they've spent a lot of time away from their families."
Oftentimes, deputy directors, division directors and other leaders are immeasurably important to agency directors, Parson said, and added they are just as important to the Governor's Office.
"Valerie is a person who has been in the ranks for a long time," Parson said. "Who has kept operations going."
The people behind the scenes are the workers who keep agencies operating day-in and day-out, Parson continued. And the opportunity for her to be a director is long overdue, he added.
Wallingford is a U.S. Air Force veteran, who served as chief of the Intelligence Division in the United Kingdom and chief of the Electronic Intelligence Analysis Division in Hawaii. He was a Missouri state senator from 2013-20 and holds a seat in the House, representing Cape Girardeau.
"There is not more of a dedicated public servant that I've ever met, than Wayne Wallingford is," Parson said.
Wallingford acknowledged he'll have to work with other cabinet members to assure Missouri remains a great place to live, work and raise a family.
Wallingford, who worked for PepsiCo, said the largest restaurant corporations in the world know customer service is king.
"Customer service is also king in the Department of Revenue," Wallingford said. "We look forward to working with everyone over there to make sure that we have a world-class organization. Success isn't built on just one individual. It takes a team effort."
Wallingford said he intends to take about 90 days to get to know the organization, visit with workers on the ground and listen to their ideas for ways to improve DOR.
"The people on the front lines are the ones that really have the best ideas," he said. "I'll step back and see what I've learned and start making improvements at that point."
DOR will work to make certain customer service is a priority, he said.
Parson said his office is still searching for a permanent director for the Department of Economic Development but remains in the good hands of Maggie Kost, the acting director.
His office is also continuing the search for a permanent director for DSS.
"However, we are confident in acting Director Robert Knodell's abilities and know that he is well-suited to lead the department through the upcoming legislative session," Parson said.