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COUNTY'S PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICE GRANTED SIX-MONTH REPRIEVE

By BILL LUNDQUIST

GOLD BEACH – A six-month reprieve was given to the Curry County Public Health Department by the full Curry County Budget Committee Monday, but at a price.

The Public Health Department will become a stand-alone department outside the county's general fund, like the Human Services or Animal Control departments.

It will lose the equivalent of nearly five full-time positions, split evenly between registered nurses and clinical/clerical help.

Public Health will still operate offices in each of Curry County's three cities, but will try to serve the public with drastically reduced hours.

The Brookings and Gold Beach offices, now serving the public five days a week, will do so three days in Brookings and two days in Gold Beach. The Port Orford office, now open three days a week, will serve clients one day a week.

Public Health Director Barbara Floyd is not certain where the offices will be located, because the county may sell its North County building and end the lease for its South County offices.

Floyd has bigger problems to worry about, however. Commissioner Marlyn Schafer, who originally proposed turning over the county's public health authority to the state, set stiff conditions on Floyd's reorganization.

First, she would only accept Floyd's proposed budget if it did not include federal funds for fighting bio-terrorism, which state officials say is coming to the county.

Second, Public Health will be reviewed in six months. If the commissioners feel it has not met as-yet-to-be-named benchmarks, it will be turned over to the state to run.

Third, Public Health will receive no money from the county general fund, but may be granted a loan for the first year, since it currently has no cash carry-over.

The other commissioners and budget committee lay members agreed to Schafer's conditions. The Public Health budget will not be officially approved until later this week.

When Floyd's one shot at saving her department began Monday afternoon, she couldn't even be there, due to a serious family emergency.

Floyd arrived, however, a few minutes after pinch-hitters Mike Meszaros and Dave Manzella began to present her proposed budget.

Meszaros said the state agreed that it could not provide the same level of services the county could, even without county general fund dollars.

He said the department brings in $750,000 a year in payments. The Women's, Infant's and Children's nutrition program (WIC) pumps $240,000 a year into local grocery stores.

Meszaros said WIC is a hub for the department's other programs. He said the programs are interdependent and would be hard to cut out without affecting the others.

Meszaros said Floyd's proposed budgets took no money from the county's general fund, but did not include unemployment for the cut positions.

He said the county would save $90,000 in unemployment costs, however, by not turning the program over to the state.

He also said the department would need to keep two vehicles that the commissioners had already planned to give to the Sheriff's Department.

Meszaros said Floyd's second proposed budget included the $100,000-plus the department was scheduled to receive in bio-terrorism funds. He said the department would not use those funds to hire new people, but would use them to help its current staff work better.

"We're already working on communicable diseases," said Meszaros. "The funding will help us do what we've been squeezing in."

Had the budget committee gone for that proposal, it would have saved two of the positions Floyd must now cut. Those positions may be added back in, however, when the funds arrive.

Floyd said both her proposed budgets were based on actual audited figures. She did not expect to lose much revenue from curtailing the department's office hours. She said people would come when the offices were open. Floyd said she is still improving her department's accounts receivable system, but said, "People have come out of the woodwork to offer financial expertise."

Among those was Dr. Bill Swartz, who designed many of the elements of Floyd's proposed budgets. He and Floyd did not agree with Schafer on the department's total revenue for this year.

Floyd said her department received and deposited $78,000 in July and August, but the revenue was credited to the previous fiscal year. She said only $3,500 was credited to the current fiscal year, putting the department behind its estimates for the entire year.

"In any given six months," she said, "we're on track or ahead on revenue. It's very misleading."

Schafer said only $52,000 was put back to the previous year, but Floyd did not agree.

Interim Budget Officer Jeff Kemp said the modified accrual system used for audit purposes may have put the revenue back to the year in which the services were performed, but the revenue should have been credited to the month in which it was received for budget purposes.

Budget committee member Linda Brown asked if Floyd's new computer software and staff training would allow her to track receivables accurately. Floyd said yes.

Commissioner Lucie La Bont asked Floyd if she would be willing to make more cuts if it turned out her department's budget was in worse shape than predicted for the current budget year. Floyd said she was prepared to make more cuts next month, if necessary.

Commissioner Rachelle Schaaf asked Floyd what technical assistance she would be receiving. Floyd said she would continue to work with Swartz and the oversight committee to be set up.

La Bont said assistance was offered by state officials and Columbia State University. Floyd said training at Southwestern Oregon Community College could also help.

Budget committee member Don Buffington said, "You had to make a lot of changes. I'll support Public Health in Curry County rather than the state taking over."

Schafer said Floyd's budgets did not include $15,000 for the medical examiner. Buffington said it would cost the county the same whether the examiner was in the Public Health Department or under the district attorney.

Swartz said the examiner would be kept in the department because it runs off the examiner's medical license.

Schafer also wanted to know exactly how much unemployment the county would have to pay for Floyd's proposed personnel cuts. Floyd said she could get those figures.

La Bont said it would be less than the $90,000 projected if the state took over the program.

As for the vehicles, La Bont said it would actually cost the Sheriff's Department less to not take the Public Health cars, though it would cost the county another $15,000 in purchases.

Schafer insisted on going with the budget without counting on bio-terrorism funds.

"I want to see the money in my hot little hand," she said, "plus what they want us to do for it."

Floyd said a letter from the state assured her the money is coming. She said there are requirements for all grant funds, and those are still being developed. Schaaf said, "It's a big leap of faith to say you can fix an entire department with a group of volunteers."

Schafer wanted to know the extent of Swartz's commitment.

"I gave you my word I would do whatever I could," said Swartz.

He was concerned, however, that the department would be judged as failing even if it was doing well, because of not having a cash carry-over.

Schafer said the county would have to loan it those funds, but only in the first year.

Swartz was also concerned about the indirect costs the county would charge it. Schafer said all departments outside the general fund must pay those.

Home Health/Hospice Director Lori Kent said her department's revenues exceeded expenses when it was split off from the general fund.

She warned it would be a challenge for Public Health to do it while digging itself out of a hole.

Dale Thomas, of Wedderburn, said the commissioners should set definitive benchmarks now.

If Public Health cannot meet them in six months, he said, the rest of the year could be used to prepare to return the department to the state.

Another citizen said the commissioners would need a transition plan before they turned it over to the state. He said they were responsible for making sure children and families received services.

Schaaf told Floyd, "I appreciate what you are going through, and your working with volunteers to put together something workable. I hope to high heaven it is."

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