With Election Day on Tuesday, March 17, Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner spoke to The Times-Gazette about the importance of passing Issue 1, an 0.5-mill operating levy. Without the levy, Warner said the health department could make it through the remainder of 2020, but beginning in 2021, the department would not be able to provide state-mandated services.
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.
“The only real option we have to fund the health department is through a property tax levy,” Warner said. “We’re not given the option in the Ohio Revised Code to do a sales tax or any sort of income tax.”
The five-year levy would generate around $360,000 anuually — the funding a modern health department needs, Warner said.
“It’s a hard thing to ask. Nobody wants to go back to the voters and ask for additional funding, but we really do think this levy is important for the health department’s long-term stability. The 1989 levy is now expired, but it’s really hard to run a modern health department on a 30-year-old levy,” Warner said. “In 1989, we weren’t doing the amount of work we’re doing now, and we didn’t provide as many services that we provide now, but we were still being funded at that same rate. It really becomes difficult to make ends meet. Every once in a while, we do have to revisit these levies and make sure our county agencies have the funding they need to do the important work that they do.”
The 1989 levy has since expired, and a levy passed in 2001 is set to expire this year, Warner said.
“We really rely heavily on these levies to support the work we do,” Warner said. “If we want a health department that can inspect restaurants and do childhood immunizations and address community issues and respond to issues like coronavirus, we need to fund these agencies.”
Warner estimated that about 50 percent of the health department’s funding comes from levies while 20 percent comes from grants and 30 percent comes from fees from licensing programs and services.
“A lot of people think we give all of our services away for free, but when people come here to get services, they are expected to contribute something to help keep the health department operating,” Warner said. “There are a couple of minor exceptions. The big exception is with childhood immunizations. If a child comes in and their parents simply can’t afford a vaccine, we’re still going to make sure a child gets an immunization because it’s an important part of keeping our community healthy.”
Warner said the department was able to save up a little money after a sanitarian left for a job in Brown County.
“We need another sanitarian. We left that position empty so we could save up money in case this levy doesn’t pass, but we’re really in the position now where we’re not meeting the state-mandated programs we’re supposed to offer,” Warner said. “We’re having a lot of problems keeping up with our trash and nuisance complaint process. We’re at the position where we really can’t reduce our funds anymore if we’re already not meeting the needs we’re mandated to meet. That’s why this levy is so important to us.”
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.
If the levy is passed, the money from the levy would be used to pay for ongoing operational costs, vaccines, technology upgrades and maintenance, modernization of the health department, and continued access to free or reduced health costs to the community.
“The levy money would not be used for 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, instead of waiting a week or two to get your septic system inspected, you may be looking at waiting two or three months.”
Though Warner acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates the importance of having a local health department, he said that he and his team have been striving to make sure the levy and the work they’re doing in response to the coronavirus remain separate.
“This is not the time to politicize an issue that could have a major impact on the community. We’re trying to take a calm, responsible approach and keep the levy and this public health issue separate,” Warner said. “That being said, this is why we have a local health department. For several years now, we’ve had plans in place in case something like coronavirus came to Highland County. This is why it’s important to fund the health department and why it’s important that we have public health services and a strong public health system in the U.S. — every once in a while, things like this do happen. It’s important that we’re able to respond to them.”
Warner said 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 McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.