In the upcoming election, the Highland County Health Department is seeking to maintain its funding with the renewal of a local health levy, Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner told The Times-Gazette.
“We’re looking to renew again this year. It’s just to keep it at level funding; it’s not an increase to anyone’s taxes,” Warner said. “We’re just trying to maintain funding so we can continue supporting all the different programs that we have here in the county.”
If renewed, the levy’s tax rate will continue at $0.05 for each $100 of land valuation for the next five years, according to information provided by the Highland County Board of Elections. The tax will commence in 2020 and first become due in 2021.
Warner acknowledged that Highland County voters passed a separate health levy during the November 2019 election. He said that levy replaced a levy from 1989, bringing the old levy to modern-day funding levels.
The Highland County community passed the levy that appears on the current ballot in 2000, Warner said, and has renewed the levy every five years since.
“The ceiling was set for how much it could earn from the beginning, and it’s never earned more than it did in 2000,” Warner said.
The health department counts on levies like the one on the 2020 ballot to provide its services. Health levies make up 50 percent of the health department’s funding.
“So much of what we do is unfunded. Half the work we do is funded by local levies and in the midst of a global pandemic is not that time to take away one of those levies,” Warner said. “When infectious diseases are identified, we contact people who are sick, we talk to them about what symptoms to expect, we connect them with treatment when we need to, we tell them how to prevent spreading that disease to others. There’s no reimbursement for that work. That’s why we rely on funding from tax levies — to support that effort.”
In a normal year, Warner said the health department provides 60 different health department services for the community.
In 2019, the Highland County Health Department performed 4,337 immunizations, completed over 600 food inspections, processed 3,174 birth and death records, and tracked 514 infectious diseases, Warner said.
The nursing and environmental health departments also answered around 10,000 phone calls.
“A lot of those phone calls were the same people, but that represents a quarter of our population that has some interaction with the health department each year,” Warner said. “Traditionally Highland County is in the bottom quarter of funded health departments in the state. There’s plenty of room for improvement in the health factors and measures that we use to determine if a community is healthy or not. That’s why we’re here; that’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what this levy funding helps us support.”
Warner acknowledged that many community members are frustrated with state officials due to the COVID-19 response but stressed the value of funding local health departments.
“The CDC and the national news media and the Ohio Department of Health have the biggest voices, but we are the ones doing the real work — we’re doing essentially all of the work locally, but we have the smallest voices,” Warner said. “We’ve really worked hard to find common-sense ways to protect this community from Covid. That’s one of the benefits in having a local health department that’s involved and invested in the community: We understand one size doesn’t fit all, and as a local health department, we’re in the position to make some common-sense decisions and interpret some of these orders from the state in ways that make sense for Highland County. We look for ways to protect our community and work as a partner with the community. We’re not out there shutting things down and yelling at people; we’re really trying to work beside people and find safe ways to do things.”
If the levy is not renewed, Warner said the health department will be forced to stop offering some of its programs and increase its prices for remaining services.
“There are a few things that we’re currently having trouble keeping up with, and we’d have to do away with those programs, even though a couple of them are mandated by the state,” Warner said. “One of them is the trash and sewer nuisance program. It’s completely unfunded. We don’t get any revenue from dealing with these trash complaints and sewage failures. We just will not be able to do that work if we don’t get that funding.
“It really turns the health department towards only doing jobs and only working on programs that generate funding for us because we’re trying to make payroll and pay people to do the work that we need to do as a health department. None of this is meant to be held over someone’s head like, ‘We’re going to charge you more if you don’t pass this’ — it’s just the reality. I have to make payroll. If we don’t have funds, that’s not going to happen.”
Fees for items like food licenses and septic and water installation permits could also increase.
A lack of funding would also affect some of the health department’s free health care clinics and screenings for those without insurance or access to health care, which ultimately save taxpayers money.
“People get frustrated with us because we occasionally have these free programs to offer to the community,” Warner said. “If we spend a little bit of the health department’s money in, say, identifying breast cancer in a woman in our community and we find that early, we save tens of thousands of dollars that would have been spent when this person shows up at the emergency room at the hospital with advanced breast cancer and has to go through all the treatment using Medicare, using Medicaid. A little bit of an investment in preventative health care saves our entire community and our entire tax system a lot of money down the road.”
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.