Changes in public health

To help offset a fiscal crisis at the Washington County Health Department, the Ohio Department of Health has recommended that the county institution consider consolidation of services with other facilities like the Marietta City Health Department.

Last week Washington County Board of Health president Richard Daniell announced the county health department has been operating in the red for the last three years, and had to borrow enough money from the county commissioners to make the first payroll of the month.

The department is down to one full-time and one part-time nurse, and last month the health board did not renew former health commissioner Kathleen Meckstroth’s contract which expired Dec. 31.

In a letter from Ohio Department of Health to the county department earlier this month, ODH Deputy Director Martin Tremmel suggested “approaching city health districts in Washington County to discuss shared services and merger opportunities.”

That may be a good idea, according to Laura Fulton, 44, of Marietta.

“We’re all trying to figure better ways to live within our means,” she said Sunday. “And we just don’t have the tax base to support all of these facilities. It’s an unfortunate reality. But consolidations have been tried elsewhere and resulted in more efficienct services.”

Gloria Huffman, 53, also from Marietta, agreed.

“Anything to save costs,” she said. “If it’s going to save money I think it’s a good idea. Our taxes are too high now, and they’re still going up. More money is being taken out of our paychecks, but the price of basic needs like food keep increasing.”

Consolidation of health departments is also OK with Dunham Township resident Naomi Bates, 72.

“I think it should be consolidated to save costs,” she said. “I think we’d get better service and there would be more money available to provide services.”

Marietta Mayor Joe Matthews said the idea of merging county and city health departments has been around for some time.

“They’ve talked about this for years, but I’ve always said I’m not for it,” he said. “We already have a great health department program in the city, and who would be in charge of a consolidated department? I’m not supportive of it at all.”

Matthews, who is also president of Marietta’s health board, said the city health department exists to meet the needs of residents and a merger with the county department could water down those services.

Ohio 94th District Rep. Debbie Phillips said consolidation of services to create more efficiencies in various areas of government, including education and health departments, is an idea being promoted by some legislators in Columbus.

“I would have to see more specific details about a proposal for consolidation,” she said. “The devil is always in the details. But the most important issue is how it would affect services for residents.”

Phillips noted at least one legislator has suggested consolidating school classes into groups of 50 students to help offset education budgets-a proposal she finds alarming.

“Merging services may help some government offices become more efficient, but the key issue is how the services our people depend on will be impacted,” she said.

Phillips believes Gov. John Kasich’s reduction of local government funding in order to help balance the state budget is “just wrong” because of the effect on public services like fire and police protection, as well as health services.

Ohio 95th District Rep. Andy Thompson said the idea of consolidating government facilities is aimed at reducing duplicative services and saving tax dollars.

“Every level of government is trying to be frugal,” he said. “We’re in the business of getting the best we can out of every tax dollar.”

Thompson noted that a special fund is available to assist with transition costs for local government departments that consolidate services.

“Government should always be trying to do what we can to improve efficiencies and gain value for taxpayers,” he added.