Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner was frank Monday in his assertion that if an 0.5-mill operating levy that will be on the March 17 ballot is rejected a third time by voters, his office will be on life-support and in critical condition when the calendar says Jan. 1, 2021.
The five-year operating levy would generate around $360,000 for the cash-strapped health department, which he said would bring funding rates up to present-day levels.
He said that for every $100,000 of property valuation, 35 percent is taxable, and that passage of the levy would amount to $15.75 annually for that same $100,000 Highland County property, which he said would come to $1.31 a month extra in taxes.
“We’re at the point now where we can’t do some of the state mandated programs as often as we’d like or need to,” he said. “The staff and the funding to support it just isn’t there, and yet the state law requires us to do some important things and we are barely keeping up.”
He said that if voters reject the levy, the health department would not be able remain in compliance with what he referred to as “the law of the land that comes from Columbus.”
State mandates for any county health department, he said, include performing health inspections in every county restaurant and grocery store at least twice annually, inspection and licensing for residential sewage system installation and investigating nuisance complaints. At current funding levels, Warner said, his office is “barely making ends meet.”
“The levy money is not to going to go for any extravagant spending, we’re not going to be buying office furniture or purchasing vehicles, but it’ll be used to pay the bills and maintain staff costs,” he said. “If the levy doesn’t pass, you’ll be looking at instead of waiting a week or two to get your septic system inspected, you may be waiting two or three months.”
According to figures supplied by the health department, levy funding accounts for a little more than half of its revenue, with fees and licensing making up 31.52 percent and grant funds tallying 17.31 percent.
A recent budget projection chart showed that if the levy passes in next month’s primary election, a black line indicated a figure of $361,000 for health department operations, but creeping steadily upward on that same chart was a red line that represented expenses.
Major expense burdens include vaccine costs, which Warner said were up $20,000 in the past three years; health insurance costs that swelled by $30,000 in that same three-year period; and contract services, which included medical billing and other specialized services that have increased by $20,000 in two years.
More than $600,000 in grant funding has been brought into the health department since 2015, he said, but that funding is often limited in how it can be used and has been employed to cover many of the ongoing operational costs the department has incurred.
Warner said his office could always be depended upon to be good stewards of funding, noting that the money the levy would provide would be used to pay for ongoing operational costs, the purchasing of vaccines, technology upgrades and maintenance, modernization of the health department, and continued access to free or reduced health costs to the community.
In an effort to reduce expenses, cost-cutting measures have been in place since 2015 that have included reducing staff overtime by 40 percent, eliminating two positions and combining another to reduce costs, in addition to implementing quality improvement processes to increase efficiency within the department.
But Warner said belt-tightening measures can only go so far when expenses exceed revenue, and that is where the health department will be one year from now if the March levy doesn’t pass.
“For $1.31 a month, or $2.62 a month, depending on the property valuation, we’re inspecting every restaurant and grocery store in Highland County,” he said. “We’re giving 3,750 immunizations a year to kids in the community, we’re keeping the food safe, protecting the environment, trying to keep the schools healthy and tracking down infectious diseases, for about the same cost as a cup of coffee at Holtfield.”
Always an advocate for transparency, Warner said that detailed financial records for the health department are available for review at no charge and at any time.
The Highland County Health Department can be reached at 937-393-1941 or by email at info@HighlandCountyHealth.org.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.