This article was edited to reflect that grant-funded programs such as vaccinations will no longer be conducted by the city after July 1, but the city will work with other area organizations to make sure such services continue in the future.
Independence will disband the Health Department effective July 1, City Manager Zach Walker announced Wednesday, and the department's functions will be transferred to other city departments in a cost-saving move.
In a release, Walker said the decision is not one he took likely, but felt it was necessary to help achieve one of the city's stated strategic goals – long-term financial sustainability.
Of the department's 35 employees, some of whom are part-time, 13 received their termination notices this week, including Director Andrew Warlen, and 10 other vacant positions will be eliminated. Twelve employees will be transferred to other departments.
The city estimates the changes will save about $375,000 annually in its general fund as it deals with a projected $3 million budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year.
Walker said there was no date on the calendar where the decision became final, but since he joined the city manager's office in the latter half of 2015, the city has been considering ways to become more efficient and remain just as effective, to control some long-term spending. The Health Department moves became more clear over time, he said.
“We kept hoping revenues would come back stronger, but as we've said before, the way we do local government is changing,” Walker said. “We've got to rethink what we're doing.
“It's about making our organization as healthy as we could without sacrificing service to the public.”
According to the release, effective March 1 Assistant Community Development Director Mike Jackson will assume part-time duties as Acting Director of Health to help with transitions. The Community Development Department will conduct food licensing and inspections as part of the regulated industries division, which includes the Rental Ready program, business licensing, liquor licensing and codes enforcement.
The animal control officers will move under the Police Department umbrella, as they often work with police officers on calls involving animals.
Walker will be recommending two new positions in the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department budget to expand community and employee wellness programs. Some terminated employees could be eligible for transfer or re-hire in other vacant positions in the city.
Walker said the city is working to determine where grant-funded programs that had been conducted will by city health, such as vaccinations and immunizations and plant and seed distributions, ultimately will land. The city will work with other area organizations to make sure they don’t go away completely, but after July 1 the city will have not conduct vaccination and immunization programs.
City employees, he said, are encouraged to take advantage of the employee wellness clinic for vaccinations.
As for the Health Department building on Liberty Street, which had been a school building long ago and was renamed in 2014 to honor former mayor Barbara Potts, Walker said the city intends to find some adaptive re-use as surplus property. Also, the city has talked to the Potts family and is looking at renaming something else to transfer that honor.
Walker said he will work hard to provide references and recommendations for Warlen to help him land on his feet.
“With his contributions to public health, he's very well-respected in that industry,” Walker said.
The changes were announced a day after the city broke ground on the $3.3 million Uptown Market, a permanent Farmers Market and events space with a combination private-public funding. Walker emphasized that the two are completely exclusive.
“The Farmers Market, there's not a dollar in that project that could've been used specifically for city operations in the Health Department,” he said. Besides the Rotary Club donation, the city is using federal grant money and an interdepartmental loan covered by parks sales tax revenues to fund Uptown Market.
“Those dollars are extremely restricted in how they could be used,” Walker said.