Health department faces cuts if levy isn’t approved by Portage voters

John Hitch

For a couple bucks a month, Portage County residents can sponsor a cause that will help more than 155,000 people. The cause isn’t in a poverty-stricken land across the globe – it’s in their own backyard.

All voters have to do is go to the polls Nov. 4 and vote yes on Issue 31, an additional .5 mill levy over the next five years that would sustain the county health department.

The tax increase has failed 24 times, and Health Commissioner Duwayne Porter said because of economic shortfalls, another failure would lead to cutting programs or handing them over to the state. Depending on a body that oversees 87 other counties could considerably slow down the process and reduce protection, he said.

Among its responsibilities are immunizations, restaurant inspections and disease prevention.

“The health department affects everybody, everyday,” Porter said. “We’re in a financial crisis. We won’t even operate on a minimal level.”

The problem is taxpayers have their own financial crisis to deal with.

“This is probably one of the worst times economically to try and get people to pay more money,” Portage County Treasurer Stephen P. Shanafelt said.

The treasurer also said because many view the health department as a punitive organization – closing down restaurants and charging homeowners for inspections – voters are less likely to give it more money.

Obligated to stay neutral on the issue, Shanafelt does admit, “If (a health program) was outsourced, your problems would, I think, increase exponentially.”

An owner of a $100,000 home would pay $15.75 a year from the tax hike, Porter said. That money will go toward expenses, along with eradicating mosquito larva, improving immunization programs and creating a health center more accessible to senior citizens.

Shanfelt predicts if the levy fails again, the county will have to increase fees and cut many programs and employees. The staff is one-third the size of its 1981 size, when the county had about 20,000 fewer people.

“They’re bare bones now,” Kent Health Commissioner John Ferlito said. “If their numbers drop, it makes it harder to collaborate.”

Kent has its own health department, but the county provides aid in times of trouble, as it did in the spring when 435 people contracted food poisoning at Chipotle.

“Nobody cares about us until something pops up,” Ferlito said.

That something could be a massive outbreak that requires each level of government to respond quickly and efficiently. According to the Ohio Department of Health’s influenza response plan, “a pandemic will occur; the unknowns are time, extent, and amount of warning.”

Contact public affairs reporter John Hitch at [email protected].