The "Help Wanted" sign went up at the Washington County Health Department Tuesday as health board members approved advertisements for a part-time health commissioner, full-time health administrator, and full-time director of nursing.
The move comes on the heels of last month's board decision not to renew former full-time health commissioner Kathleen Meckstroth's contract due to dwindling financial resources. Her contract expired Dec. 31.
"We're just doing the best we can," board president Richard Daniell said at the end of Tuesday's extended board of health meeting.
He noted the department did not have enough money to cover the Jan. 11 payroll, so Daniell approached the Washington County Commissioners and received an advance on the health department's share of real estate taxes. But there will be no more of that funding available until sometime between April and June.
Daniell added that an annual $59,000 grant that subsidizes the health department's dental clinic had also been recently denied.
"That grant represented 18 to 20 percent of the clinic's income," he said. "And we cannot sustain that without a reduction in services. I'm not sure we can overcome that loss."
Daniell said the board had fronted $40,000 to help get the clinic established, and was hoping the facility could begin to repay that money. He said the clinic has only been able to repay about $4,000 so far.
"We've been left in a heck of a mess," he said. "The health department has been running at a loss for three years in a row now. And that's part of the reason for the changes we've made. Our choice was to either cut personnel or cut services. And the board voted to cut personnel opposed to cutting services at this time."
On Jan. 3, after learning of the non-renewal of Meckstroth's contract, Martin Tremmel, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Health, held a conference call with the Washington County health board members to discuss issues facing the local health department.
"They pretty much read us the riot act, for lack of a better description," Daniell said Tuesday. "And then they sent us a one page letter telling us what was expected. The letter indicated we are out of compliance and said what we need to do to become compliant."
Tremmel's letter included recommendations that the board appoint an interim part-time health commissioner during Tuesday's meeting, then appoint and hire a full-time commissioner by July 1 of this year.
He also suggested developing a business operations plan by July 1, and approach health departments in Marietta and Belpre to "discuss shared services and merger opportunities."
In addition, Tremmel recommended the health department request a performance audit from the Ohio Auditor of State.
The board was in luck as Dick Wittberg, a Washington County resident and executive director of the Mid Ohio Valley Health Department in Parkersburg, attended Tuesday's meeting and volunteered to serve as part-time interim health commissioner until another permanent commissioner could be hired.
"I want to be a resource for you, if needed," Wittberg said. "If there are things I can do to help in this situation, I certainly would like to do that."
As a citizen of Washington County and holding a PhD in biology, Wittberg more than met the requirements for the interim health commissioner post, and his offer was unanimously accepted by the health board members.
Daniell and environmental health director Ken Robinson were tapped to serve as co-interim health administrators until a full-time administrator is hired.
The board agreed to advertise for a permanent part-time health commissioner who would require a master's degree or better in public health and would work an estimated 10 hours per month.
The hiring of a full-time health administrator is also required to coordinate delivery of health services. That position would oversee personnel, budgeting and grant compliance, among other duties.
And the full-time director of nursing position requires a nursing degree and valid registered nurse license in the State of Ohio, as well as experience in grant compliance and management.
Resumes for all three positions will be accepted through Feb. 8.
"I think it's reprehensible that the ODH has allowed the health department to operate at a loss for the last three years-they bear some responsibility," Wittberg said.
But he agreed with Tremmel's recommendation for the county department to seek a merger with other health departments in Washington and surrounding counties.
"I would like to see consolidation of the health departments in Washington County into a regional health department," Wittberg said. "All of these health departments are strapped, and there would be no better time than now to do this."
"I think consolidation is something that will have to be strongly considered," he said.