The issue about pulling McDowell out of the three-county district health department and having a standalone, locally run department was again brought before the McDowell County Commissioners. But this time, the commissioners heard from numerous employees with the Health Department who are upset and worried about how their agency is being portrayed.
Last month, the McDowell County Commissioners talked again about the idea of operating a locally run health department and no longer participating in the district department with Rutherford and Polk. During the Aug. 20 meeting, the commissioners came close to separating McDowell from the three-county district department but the motion failed by a 2-3 vote.
At Monday’s meeting, the commissioners faced an overflow crowd of Health Department employees and officials, some of whom had to wait in the hallway. Health Director Karen Powell said to the commissioners they are basing their decisions regarding her department on the backlog with environmental health inspections, which causes delays for new construction. She said the department does far more than that.
“We do a lot more than septic tanks and well permits,” said Powell to the commissioners. “I don’t want you to make a decision based on environmental health.”
Powell said her department has hired two new people to start working in McDowell County and do environmental health inspections. They were supposed to start their training in Raleigh but have now been sent away because of Hurricane Florence threatening the state.
Furthermore, the state of North Carolina is not budging when it comes to changing the requirements for training so someone could start working sooner. Furthermore, the Rutherford-Polk-McDowell District Department has to compete with surrounding counties like Buncombe, Henderson and Burke which can pay higher salaries for new environmental health workers.
Commission Chairman David Walker said he wanted more information before making a final decision about the future of the department.
Powell said she and others could get him the facts he needs.
Commission Vice Chairman Barry McPeters read a letter from Ray Burnette, president of the McDowell Homebuilders Association. The letter states that the current wait time for a permit is three months and the problems with the backlog have gotten worse over the past six years.
“I’ve seen a growing problem,” said Commissioner Tony Brown. “I’ve seen no signs of correction.”
Walker added that ideally the commissioners would like for McDowell to stay within the district department.
Health officials said there are still people coming to work here from Buncombe to do the inspections.
Ruth Keener, the processing assistant for the Environmental Health Section, said the amount of time for the backlog has been reduced. Last month, it was seven weeks and now it is three weeks, she added.
Brown asked Powell if McDowell is getting treated equally by the department as Rutherford or Polk. At one point during Monday’s long and emotional discussion, all of the massive work going into preparing for the World Equestrian Games in Tryon was mentioned.
“I will look you in the face and say that McDowell County gets treated better than Rutherford and Polk,” said Powell to Brown.
Powell said she would like to see more McDowell County representation on her board. Keener said she wants another meeting with the commissioners so they can talk about this more in depth and go over the facts and figures.
During the public comment period, Sheree Bright, a public health nurse, asked the commissioners to name other services that are provided besides environmental health.
“You don’t even know what we’re doing,” she said.
In addition to environmental health inspections, the Health Department provides preventive health services such as adult and childhood immunizations, health checks for children, family planning services, postpartum visits and WIC Services. There is tuberculosis and communicable disease control and adult health screening, according to the Web site for the district department.
Bright read a list of these and other services to the board. “It’s not just about environmental,” she added.
Dave Kehler from the Homebuilders Association said he understands the work that is being done by health employees.
“I appreciate what you are doing,” he said to the crowd. “We need to work together.”
No action or decision was made Monday evening. But the commissioners said they will get all of the facts before making any other decisions.
“We just want to make it work,” said Walker to the crowd.
More than a year ago, the commissioners talked about this problem with Powell. Due to retirements and others leaving their positions, the district Health Department has experienced a shortage of people who perform environmental health inspections. These are the inspectors who check out septic tanks, wells, child care facilities, restaurants and other food establishments and swimming pools. As a result, the commissioners voted a year ago to have a study done that would look at the feasibility of a stand-alone health department for McDowell County.
Last month, County Manager Ashley Wooten wrote in a memo the total clinical services would cost approximately $1.68 million a year. Almost all of that cost is covered by Medicaid, service contracts or other fees with only a small percentage being local funds. The administration and environmental health would be approximately $911,373. This would result in a minimum shortfall of approximately $300,000.
So based on this scenario, the county would have to budget an additional $300,000 or more in the next budget year in order to operate a standalone department, according to Wooten.
Last month, Brown made a motion to move forward with the standalone department for McDowell. His motion failed 2-3. Brown and Walker voted in favor while Commissioner Lynn Greene, Vice Chairman Barry McPeters and Commissioner Brenda Vaughn voted against.
Greene said on Monday he was opposed to moving forward with it at that time but he’s not opposed to overall idea of separating from the district department.