County health department seeks $1.1M in extra funds

Betz Rund

Portage County voters will have a chance to pass or reject this issue on Tuesday

If voters in Portage County pass a tax levy for the Portage County Health District Tuesday, it would be the first additional levy to pass for the district since 1955.

Issue 13 is a .4 mill levy that will raise approximately $1.1 million over the next five years if passed. The levy will potentially cost taxpayers less than $16 a year, roughly $1.31 per month on a $100,000 home.

This additional tax will be added to the property taxes of businesses, homeowners and commercial property.

The health department has already had to cut back on services. In an effort to save money, employees have taken a 10 percent pay cut over a six-month period to avoid layoffs.

Until June 25, the health department will be closed on the second and fourth Friday of each month. The closures have saved the health department approximately $60,000.

Revenue from the levy will go toward restoring day-to-day services and operations, including re-opening the health department five days a week and offer more health programs.

The health department barely has enough staff to complete the state-mandated number of visits to local business, said Sarah Hallsky, the Health Promotion and Education supervisor.

Funded through a variety of grants, the PCHD also gets money from permit and licenses fees issued when property is inspected.

However, the revenue from these fees has decreased in recent years. Hallsky explained the decline is due to the weak economy in recent years.

DuWayne Porter, the Portage County combined general health district commissioner, explained that in a good year, the PCHD can grant 500 septic permits. Last year, they gave just over 100 and in the three months between January and March, they gave three.

“When you cut your main revenue by 80 percent, you can see what kind of fiscal trouble you’re in,” Porter said.

The original levy, passed in 1955, only provides roughly $330,000 a year toward the $1.9 million annual budget. The levy failed last November and has failed 34 times in the last 55 years.

Every year the health department is less able to handle program responsibilities and state minimums, said Porter.

In the 1980s, the number of employees dropped from 65 to four. Since then, the number of employees has fluctuated as the funds have fluctuated, but the health department has generally hovered around the 25-employee mark.

During 2009, the Environmental Services Division conducted almost 16,000 inspections and consultations. The division, made up of six sanitation employees and one supervisor, is responsible for overseeing installations and permits for septic and water supply systems.

Additionally, the division does follow-up inspections for both new and old systems as well as solid waste and sewage nuisance complaints, inspecting convenience stores, grocery stores, manufactured homes and campgrounds, public pools, spas and beaches.

The division also checks school buildings and playground equipment for structural damage, trash and anything else that might make the area unsafe.

In addition to safety inspections, the PCHD itself offers a wide variety of services for the community. Anyone from the community can come in for vaccinations and screenings at a reduced rate, usually $10 for children and teenagers. For adults 19 years and older, the price will vary depending on the shot.

It doesn’t matter whether the individual has insurance or not Hallsky said. A walk-in doesn’t count as a doctor’s visit for health insurance plans.

The PCHD also offers an international travel clinic, which allows travelers to meet with a doctor and discuss where they are going and what types of vaccinations they might need. Once this is determined, the PCHD doctor will order the specific vaccine and administer them.

Hallsky explained that doctors recommend patients to the PCHD because it’s not cost effective for them to keep all the vaccines on hand.

“We provide a lot of services that make people’s lives easier and they don’t even realize (it),” Hallsky said. “People use public health services every day and don’t realize it.”

While the cities of Kent and Ravenna both have individual health departments, they are very small, mostly taking care of environmental services. Ravenna has only one part time nurse on hand to administer vaccinations while Kent has none.

Kent contracts with the PCHD for nurses to provide vaccinations screenings for its residents. In addition, the PCHD partners with Kent to inspect wastewater sewage and well water.

John Ferlito, health commissioner for the Kent Health District, said he does not know how the levy might affect the service they provide to the city. However, he has noted that they receive more calls asking for information the days the PCHD is closed.

Health districts are mandated by the state. Cities with populations over 5,000 have their own health departments, while those with fewer residents join together in counties.

The city of Kent is primarily funded from inspection, license and permit fees as well as money from the city’s general fund.

Hallsky said it is unknown at this time whether the recent Health Care Reform Act will have an effect on the departments funding or services, but the National Association of County and City Health Officials is looking into the possible effects.

“We are the public health entity in this area. We take the lead when there is a health emergency,” Hallsky said. “But when you don’t have the staff, what are you going to do?”

If the levy fails, Porter and his staff will have to find alternative means of funding to continue to provide service, possibly including more furloughing of employees, shorter work hours, joining with outside health departments and cutting back on what services can be provided.

Because of financial constraints, the Cuyahoga County Health District has taken over enforcement of the statewide smoking ban.

The health department has a responsibility to the citizens Hallsky said. She said that they are here to make sure that everyone has clean water and safe food. She also said she hopes they will always be here.

Porter said he hopes the PCHD has proved themselves worthwhile to the community during the H1N1 flu season.

Porter added that he understands that times are tough, especially financially, but the levy is less than $16 a year.

The Mental Health and Recovery Board of Portage County, the League of Women Voters and the Senior Services Center of Portage County have endorsed the levy.

Contact public affairs reporter Betz Rund at [email protected].