Sunday, December 10, 2023

Ottawa County commissioners passed a budget with cuts to the health department

OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Ottawa County commissioners voted Tuesday to pass a proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which has been the subject of much debate because of how much is allocated to the health department.

Initially, commissioners associated with the conservative Ottawa Impact political action committee and Administrator John Gibbs indicated that the Ottawa County Department of Public Health would get $2.5 million from the general fund. Ottawa County Health Officer Adeline Hambley said she is asking for $6.4 million.

After Hambley publicly mocked the $2.5 million limit, saying it was shutter his department commissioners and Gibbs said the health department will get $4.3 million for the coming year.

The total funding allocation eventually increased to nearly $4.8 million, the amount the board passed last night in a 7 to 3 vote. Commissioners Lucy Ebel, Allison Miedema, Kyle Terpstra, Gretchen Cosby, Sylvia Rhodea, Roger Belknap, and Joe Moss voted yes, while Jacob Bonnema, Roger Bergman, and Doug Zylstra voted no. Commissioner Rebekah Curran abstained.

Before the meeting, dozens of demonstrators stood outside the Fillmore Complex in West Olive County, many holding signs in support of the health department. The signs said things like, “Support public health,” “Full fund our health department” and “Public health: Where everyone is taken care of.”

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More than 70 people spoke Tuesday night, many sharing their opinions on the health department’s budget cuts. The majority spoke in opposition to the funding cuts.

“This county deserves a public health department that’s doing everything it can — whether you agree with it or not, doing everything it can for its residents,” said one resident who spoke at the meeting. . “I have benefited throughout my life and seen others benefit throughout my life from the work of the Ottawa County public health department. You probably don’t need it yet, but you will at some point. ”

Another speaker expressed his support for the budget during the public comment portion of the meeting. “I can’t believe people say, ‘Oh, the budget was cut. Oh, we’re going to close our health department.’ … Give me a break. Do you think all the people really want to close the health department? Can’t people learn to operate within a budget?

Hambley also spoke to the commission and said County Administrator John Gibbs stated there would be “no cuts” to children’s programs under the proposed budget, a statement he said was untrue.

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“Under the current budget is proposed a health education program, which includes a program for children and families, including food in Ottawa, the Ottawa Area Suicide Prevention Coalition, migrant farm worker health, Meet Up and Eat Up, Safe Homes, and substance abuse prevention programs, were cut by almost 50 percent.”

Hambley added, “At a time when inflation has risen and more than 20,000 more Ottawa County residents have signed up for Medicaid since 2019, this is not the time to cut programs that help healthy access to food, suicide prevention, and substance abuse disorders,” he said. “There is no budget that can sustain a 50% reduction in funding and staff and maintain services and programs at current levels.”

The department’s epidemiology department may also be at risk. Hambley said if state funding is not met, general funding cuts will force the department to lose a third epidemiologist, which would put the county below the minimum level of service required by the state. When asked whether the budget meets state requirements, the board’s legal counsel and Gibbs both said they believe so.

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Demonstrators outside the Ottawa County Fillmore Complex show their support for the health department ahead of a commission meeting where the budget is expected to be approved. (Sept. 26, 2023)

Commissioner Rhodea compared the total budget for the health department to previous years. The department received approximately $11.37 million in 2019, $12.6 million in 2020, $12.89 million in 2021, $14.2 million in 2022, and $15.36 million in 2023. The total allocation this year is $14.38 million.

“I feel confident that we came up with a good number,” Rhodea said.

However, with a $1.6 million dollar total reduction in funding from the initial $6.4 million request, Hambley said services to families and children will suffer.

“It’s difficult to make a plan on how to implement these cuts because of the number of times the public health budget has changed in the last few weeks. My task now is to identify exactly how your cuts will be passed on to the residents of Ottawa County. As a health officer, I will continue to communicate clearly with you and the public on the budget you are passing.”

Hambley has nabbed the Ottawa Impact commissioners in an attempt to fire him. The case is still pending.

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