As announced two weeks ago, Independence Health Department operations will go through a drastic change in the coming months.
While on the surface it appears the department is disbanding, City Manager Zach Walker said the actual department, which is mandated by the city charter, is not going away.
The city has named Mike Jackson, assistant director of community development, as acting health director to oversee the department transitions, and Walker said Jackson meets the charter qualifications for director.
The city will continue the functions mandated by charter – enforce and administer state laws and city codes related to public health and sanitation, and food licensing and inspections – and the department will continue to have a section in the city's annual budget.
“We had to be very thoughtful, because the charter was the overriding concern here, as well as the need to provide high-quality health services in an innovative way,” Walker said, adding that the department changes came after much consultation with legal staff.
The changes – 12 position transfers, 13 people including former director Andrew Warlen having their positions terminated and 10 vacant positions eliminated – will save an estimated $375,000 as the city grapples with a projected $3 million budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year.
Food inspections will now be part of the Community Development Department, and code enforcement already had been transferred to there from the Health Department – part of a regulated industries division that also includes the Rental Ready program and business and liquor licensing. With that prior move, Jackson had been transferred from Health to Community Development.
The city charter states the director of health shall have a master of public health, public health administration or equivalent-related degree; or shall be a physician with experience in public health administration.
“We believe we're meeting requirements of the charter,” Walker said. “We're trying to be as efficient and cost-effective as we can, with respect to the letter and spirit of the law.”
Animal control officers – a service not mandated in the charter – also will remain. They will be under the supervision of the Police Department. Walker said that move is natural because animal control often worked with police officers on calls involving animals.
Walker said many of the Health Department's grant-funded services were duplicated by the county and other community partners. The city still is working to assure that such services – immunizations, vaccinations and plant and seed distribution – will be covered by other agencies, but Walker said “We don't have an exact handle on that yet.”
The changes will not take full effect until July 1, which is why the city announced them months in advance, Walker said – to allow time for such decisions.