County health grant in jeopardy

The Washington County Health Department could lose a federal grant worth $158,000 a year if the department does not hire a full-time administrator by June 3, according to information released during Tuesday’s monthly health board meeting.

“I’ve received a letter from the Ohio Department of Health saying that we don’t meet the requirements of the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Grant because we don’t have a full-time health administrator,” said Dick Wittberg, interim county health commissioner.

He said the letter was received Monday, but before it came he had already planned to suggest this could be a good time to begin the process of hiring a full-time health administrator.

The administrator post is currently being covered by the department’s environmental health director Ken Robinson, but to qualify for the grant a separate person would have to take the administrative position.

“As of (Monday) we don’t qualify for this grant, and we have until June 3 to become qualified or we receive no more of that money,” said Betty King, regional public health emergency preparedness coordinator.

She said the federal grant, administered by the state health department, pays for mandated emergency planning, preparedness exercises, community preparedness education, and related efforts throughout the 11-county region for which King is coordinator.

The grant also covers full-time salaries for King and local emergency preparedness coordinator Angela Lowry, as well as portions of salaries for several other health department workers.

Jeannie Farnsworth, the department’s computer coordinator, fiscal officer, and deputy registrar, noted the county has not been fully compliant with the grant requirements since former county health commissioner Kathleen Meckstroth left Dec. 12 after learning her contract with the department would not be renewed at the end of last year.

“We’ve received $58,000 of that grant money (from ODH) since then, and they could ask us to pay that back,” Farnsworth said.

Wittberg said he did not know how to advise the board members on the issue, but he does not believe ODH would require repayment of the grant monies already distributed to the county department.

“I think they just want compliance,” he said. “And I don’t think they will want the money back unless we simply refuse to comply.”

Health board president Richard Daniell noted the department has struggled financially since December.

“We couldn’t make the first payroll in January because the monies we had at the time were all tied up in grants,” he said. “But we are doing some better as we’re up to $150,000 now, less about $24,000 in unpaid vouchers.”

Wittberg said the health department began the year with $6,000 in available cash, and were now nearly $130,000 in the black.

But loss of the quarterly-paid emergency preparedness grant funding could reverse that trend.

“And non-compliance with regulations of one grant could impact other grant funding, too,” Farnsworth cautioned. “But this has been an issue since December, and appointment of a full-time administrator has come before the board several times.”

The board agreed that it would have to put the hiring of a full-time administrator on a fast-track to try and meet the June 3 deadline for compliance with the grant requirements.

In other business Tuesday, Washington County Commissioner Ron Feathers asked the health board to consider developing a septic system inspection program for about 300 Devola households currently not served by the recently-installed public sewer system that connects to Marietta’s wastewater treatment plant.

He noted the community is facing orders from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for all Devola homes to be served by a public sewer system, but it would cost each of the 300 households approximately $17,000 to close down their septic tanks and tap into the public system.

“That community of 300 homes would have to pay more than $5 million to connect into a public system,” he said, noting that there are many in the Devola community who are on a fixed income and simply cannot afford to make the change.

Feathers said he has a June 21 appointment with Ohio EPA representatives in Columbus, and would like to offer an alternative to requiring those 300 homeowners to abandon their septic systems in favor of public sewer service.

He said Ohio Revised Code gives county health departments the authority to develop a septic inspection program that, if put in place by the local board, could help pacify the Ohio EPA’s concerns about potential pollution from the septic systems and encourage the agency to reverse the public sewer system requirement.

Robinson said the septic inspection program could be developed, but he did not believe it would change the Ohio EPA order as the agency’s main concern is reducing or eliminating nitrates from getting into the ground water.

Nitrates have been linked to illness or possible death when ingested by infants less than 6 months old, according to the agency.

Elevated levels of the substance were discovered in Devola’s drinking water in 2009 and reported to the Ohio EPA by the Putnam Community Water Association.

Since that time the community’s old wastewater treatment plant has been removed and a majority of Devola residences connected through the public sewer system to Marietta’s wastewater facility.

The Putnam Community Water Association is also installing a reverse osmosis system designed to filter out any nitrates in the community’s drinking water.

Robinson suggested that a better strategy for Feathers and other Devola residents concerned about having to switch from septic systems to public sewer service would be to gather data comparing Devola’s nitrate levels to other areas of the Muskingum River valley.

Wittberg added that showing reduced nitrate levels in the area could also have a possible impact on Ohio EPA’s order.

Daniell asked Robinson to put together a septic inspection program so Feathers could tell the agency that a program is under development when he approaches the agency about the issue on June 21.

“If we can help the people in Devola, we should,” Daniell said.