Council members: Health Department needs more funding

By Mike Genet
The Examiner

While grateful the city of Independence was able to state recognition six months ago to reinstate its health department, some City Council members want to be sure the city doesn’t short-change the organization. 

Karen DeLuccie, for one, says the city should take greater advantage of the American Rescue Plan funds that will be coming the city’s way this summer. Estimates call for the city to receive $20.3 million, eligible for a variety of uses. Funds to municipal governments everywhere will arrive half this year and half the next. 

DeLuccie said during Monday’s council meeting she plans to request a budget amendment next week for an additional $300,000 for the Health and Animal Services Department to expand services, particularly with immunizations, communicable disease work and nurses. The council is scheduled to vote on the fiscal year 2021-22 budget on June 21. 

Currently, that department is slated for more than $2.7 million, including $346,000 for environmental services and $807,000 for health services. The use tax funds – sales taxes on online sales – cover animal shelter operations, as planned, and the health property tax levy helps cover animal services and $430,000 of the health services. State grant funds cover the balance of health services. 

DeLuccie said that’s not good enough, as the pandemic showed how valuable public health work can be in cities. 

“That is not going to get us where we need to be,” she said. 

“We have a gift right now; that money is there,” DeLuccie added, referring to ARP funds. “Get a grant writer in there.” 

Otherwise, she said, “We’re always going to be playing catch-up.” 

Council Member Mike Steinmeyer added that the city “desperately” needs to consider more funding “to do a Health Department that’s right.” 

Current budget plans call for $150,000 from the ARP in start-up costs this year for health, with the same amount slated for next year. Another $85,000 for a grant writer was part of City Manager’s Zach Walker initial outline for Rescue Plan spending, but as of now is not in the FY 2021-22 budget. 

The city has moved the handful of environmental service employees, who had been part of the Health Department before it was dispersed a couple years ago in a cost-saving move, back to the Health Department. Food inspection employees are also back under that umbrella, and the city has hired an administrative specialist and a public health specialist, with an epidemiologist slated to begin in July. 

Ralph Ruckman, a dentist and chairperson of the city’s Advisory Board of Health, told the council Monday that he believes the ARP stimulus funds can help overcome the financial hurdles of getting the Health Department going again in the near term. Right now, he says, it’s less than minimally funded for the work it should do. 

“We need to take more seriously what the Health Department does and why they do it,” Ruckman said. “This is the one department that has the potential (to save) more lives than any other department.” 

“We’re still vulnerable to the things we don’t know and don’t understand.” 

Terry Morris, a retired physician and also a health board member, said President Truman considered the “health of our people” to be the most basic of natural resources, and President Herbert Hoover implored that public health should be incorporated as much as public education, as the returns would be great with “reduction of suffering and promotion of happiness.” Morris encouraged the council to envision “beyond the basic ‘We-can-probably-get-away-with-this’ Health Department.” 

Weir said she understands the desire for increased funding with the Health Department. The city has hired some talented, well-educated people to get the department going again, and she considers the Rescue Plan funds to be a “bridge” as the city mulls longer-term funding solutions. 

“That is money that once it’s gone, it’s gone,” she said of the stimulus funds, adding that regaining local public health authority status from the state was more paramount last year amid the pandemic. Figuring out how to fund the department long term had to wait. 

“We needed to gain state recognition first, and we would not have done that had we required that to be funded at the same time,” Weir said. “We knew that.” 

“We’ll continue to get some state funding. If the state didn’t realize before they do now, that public health is underfunded.” 

DeLuccie acknowledged that her vote to disperse health functions a couple years ago in order to help fund a new police unit was, in hindsight with the pandemic, not the best decision. 

“I thought it was the right thing to do at time, and I was wrong,” she said, “and I’m sorry that we did that.”