City not interested in health merger

The idea of merging with the Washington County Health Department has gotten a chilly reception from the Marietta City Board of Health.

“Like I told the county before, a sick dog and a well dog don’t make a well dog,” Marietta board member Hugh McConkey said at Tuesday’s health board meeting.

Sharing services or outright merging with the Marietta and Belpre health departments was among the suggestions offered by Ohio Department of Health officials after the county board voted not to renew the contract of health commissioner Kathleen Meckstroth in an effort to save money. Board President Richard Daniell recently said the department has been in the red for three years and had to borrow money from the county commission to make the first payroll of the month.

Belpre officials have only started to consider the matter, Mayor Mike Lorentz said. Currently, that city’s health board contracts out for health services with the Athens City and Marietta departments, spending between $35,000 and $43,000 each of the last three years.

“Everybody on our board is pretty pleased with the response we get from our sanitarian and commissioner” from Athens, Lorentz said. “It seems like historically we just do better taking care of what we can take care of.”

That doesn’t mean the board won’t listen to what the county has to say.

“There’s always a better mousetrap out there,” he said.

Lorentz plans to invite Dick Wittberg, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department in Parkersburg and a Marietta resident volunteering as the part-time health commissioner for Washington County’s department, to the Belpre board’s Feb. 8 meeting.

Wittberg and Dana Singer, another Marietta resident and program developer at the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, attended Tuesday’s Marietta City Board of Health meeting to discuss the idea of merging.

“You have a heck of an opportunity here, and I will be very disappointed if you let this opportunity pass you by,” Wittberg said to the board.

After exiting the meeting, Wittberg and Singer said merging departments would eliminate duplicate services and save money on administrative costs.

“Those funds can be diverted to the front line workers who are actually serving the public,” Singer said.

All three health departments administer vaccines, inspect restaurants and investigate property nuisance complaints. Marietta and the county also issue sewage and water permits and handle birth and death records, among other services. In addition, the county department investigates reported violations of the state’s indoor smoking ban and runs the Southeastern Ohio Dental Clinic.

Having a number of experienced employees while the county has an interim commissioner and a pair of interim co-administrators gives the city health department a great opportunity to influence the shape of a combined department, Wittberg said.

“Frankly, you’ve got a great staff here that could very possibly determine what that new staff would look like,” he said.

McConkey and fellow city health board John Spear said the subject of combining departments has been broached before in their more than two decades each on the board.

“The overtures have been made,” Spear said. “They just have not been able to provide the services that the city has.”

McConkey said the county health department relies too much on grant funding, while the city health department does not. More than 65 percent of its approximately $642,000 budget for the current year comes from the City of Marietta’s general fund, with the rest consisting of revenue for services.

The county health department’s 2012 financial report submitted to the state showed revenue of $1.4 million versus expenses of $1.3 million, but state officials have said the apparent $100,000 carryover from 2011 could have been money already committed to something. A breakdown of the county department’s revenue was not immediately available Tuesday.

City health board member Laurie Strahler said she is not a fan of merging, but the board should at least consider the possibility.

“Sometimes change is good. You don’t want to be stuck in a rut,” she said. “We need to keep an open mind, and I’m not sure we have one.”

Dr. Michael Brockett, the city health commissioner, said that prior to Tuesday’s meeting, the only information the board had on the county situation was what it had read in the newspaper. He expects it to be discussed further at the board’s February meeting.

Brockett said he believed one reason some board members were frustrated Tuesday was that they are protective of the city and the services the department provides.

“They’re very passionate about doing the right thing for the community members,” he said.

There could be money saved by eliminating duplicate services, Brockett said, but he’s also talked with employees of recently merged departments and “not everyone thinks that’s a good idea or (has) had a good experience with it.”

There are also concerns about losing autonomy or having proper representation, Brockett said. All five voting members of the city health board are residents of Marietta, but the makeup of a merged board would have to be determined.

Joel Whitaker, a member of the Belpre health board, said he’s been told that when the city was under the county health department’s jurisdiction before, service was delayed and it sometimes seemed like the city’s needs weren’t a priority. However, he’s willing to listen to and consider the county’s proposal, he said.

“We’re providing the services correctly and we’re giving great service,” he said. “I would have to see evidence that this was going to be an improvement.”

The first step might be to share some services and see how that goes before a full merger is pursued, Whitaker said.