County health on path to stability

The Washington County Health Department is making payroll as the board continues to look for ways to stabilize the struggling agency.

“We are still working, trying to bail out a bad financial situation,” said county health board President Richard Daniell. “We are making payroll. … But we are not well enough along that we can see very far down the road.”

The department, with an annual budget of approximately $1.3 million, ran in the red the last three years and had to borrow money from the county in January to make the first payroll of 2013. Thanks to changes and reductions – including the non-renewal of the previous health commissioner’s contract and fee increases and other moves at the Southeastern Ohio Dental Clinic – the department is able to cover the roughly $27,000 needed every two weeks to cover salary and benefits for 19 employees. That number includes full- and part-time workers, as well as those who are paid strictly out of grant funding, a health department employee said.

Daniell said the board is constantly reviewing the steps it’s taken to make sure they are working.

“It is a continuing process of review and evaluation and tweaking the changes a little bit,” he said.

Previously, Daniell has attributed the difficulties to declining state and federal support.

The Ohio Department of Health advised the board to hire a part-time health commissioner and aim to have someone in the position full-time basis, along with a business operations plan, by July 1. In addition, the state department suggested contacting the Belpre and Marietta City health departments about the possible sharing of services or mergers, but so far, those talks have borne little fruit.

Marietta City Health Department registrar Sandra Hickey said there haven’t been any talks between the departments recently, although the city board did offer its assistance last month.

The Belpre health department is satisfied with its current service, provided by contracts with the Athens City-County and Marietta departments, Mayor Mike Lorentz said.

“We’re going to stay right where we’re at, just doing what we’re doing,” he said.

But Belpre board members have indicated a willingness to listen to proposals about sharing with the county health department.

Marietta resident Dick Wittberg, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department in Parkersburg, has been serving as the interim health commissioner for the county on a volunteer basis. He said Monday the board has asked him to stay on for another three months.

Ohio Health Department Director Dr. Theodore Wymyslo visited the area recently and met with local health department officials. Merging the departments was not on the agenda; however, he did discuss proposed changes in the upcoming state budget that could impact them in the near future.

“As I understand, statewide they are cutting 180 grants to 47 grants,” Daniell said. “It may affect us locally. We do not know at this point how much or when.”

The county health board is scheduled to attend its annual meeting with the Washington County Township Trustees Association at 6 p.m. Thursday at the county engineer’s office at 103 Westview Ave. in Marietta.

The department receives $235,000 from the county’s 22 townships. In addition, the trustees group elects health board members to five-year terms on a rotating basis. Daniell’s seat is up for a vote this year.