Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner said he is not sure what will happen if an 0.5-mill replacement property tax levy for the health department does not pass before the end of this year.
The countywide health department levy will be one of only three issues facing Highland County voters during a special election Tuesday, May 4. There will also be a property tax levy for residents of the Bright Local School District that was featured in The Times-Gazette earlier this week, and an income tax levy for Greenfield residents for the continuance of an existing 0.125 percent levy for the maintenance, operation, and repair of City Hall, and to stimulate economic development within the village.
Those will be the only issues on the special election ballot.
There were some Hillsboro positions up for election, but Highland County Board of Elections Administrator Steve Witham said all those positions were unopposed, so they move on to the November General Election.
Warner said there is a health department levy that has been in place since 1989, but it still produces the same revenue it did 30 years ago. And, it will expire at the end of 2019 if the replacement levy is not passed before then.
The replacement levy would generate approximately $361,000 annually, roughly 200,000 more than the current levy.
“The big message is that it’s been paying us the same for 30 years and we just can’t continue to offer the same services with the same level of funding from 30 years ago,” Warner said. “If the replacement levy does not pass, it goes away at the end of 2019. Then it’s gone and I don’t know what we’d do. We’re barely making ends meet now.”
He said increasing vaccine costs, and rising health insurance prices and contract service expenses have caused the health department to operate at a loss since pretty much 2013.
Warner said that in an effort to keep the health department’s budget balanced, it has eliminated some positions and combined others. He said staff overtime has been reduced by 40 percent since 2015, and that quality improvement measures have been implemented to increase efficiency.
Information Warner provided also points out that:
* The health department has made efforts to be more visible to the community, which drives increased use of health department services and resources. Increased use means more revenue and more efficient time usage.
* More than $600,000 in new grant funding has been brought in to the health department since 2015. That funding is often limited in how it can be used, but has helped cover many ongoing operational costs for the health department.
If the levy passes, it would cost a homeowner $15.75 per year, or 30 cents per week, for each $100,000 of property valuation.
Warner said the increase in funding would be used for ongoing operational costs, vaccine purchasing, technology maintenance and upgrades, health department modernization, and continued access to free and reduced health costs to the community.
In 2018 alone, Warner said, the health department conducted 655 food inspections, tracked 504 infectious diseases, provided 3,750 immunizations, and received more than 8,800 office visits and phone calls.
“We’re at the point where something has to change to keep operating the way we’re operating,” he said.
Warner said while the 1989 levy itself is 0.5 mills, it continues to generate the same amount of revenue as it did in 1989 because it is a renewal levy, not a replacement levy. As a result, it only generates the amount of revenue that a .195-mill levy would generate at today’s property values.
According to Warner, the current levy funding makes up about 45 percent of the health department’s budget. He said the department does not receive general fund dollars from the county.
Warner said the health department has looked everywhere it can to reduce costs. He said some have suggested the department charge more for its services. But, he said, insurance companies will only pay certain set fees for services, and higher fees would hurt the county economy and those who need the services the most.
“We’re really in trouble,” Warner said. “We’re at the point now where we’re struggling to pay our bills at certain times of the year.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522.