Ironton Health Department asks for money to close budget gap

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ironton Health Commissioner Laura Brown Friday has asked the city council finance committee to recommend adding $36,411 to her budget to cover an end-of-the-year shortfall, adding that steps have been taken to prevent this from recurring.

Brown said several factors caused her budget gap. The Weeds and Seeds program, which handles complaints about weeds, untidy lawns and other similar property concerns, has spent $62,000 in payroll, gasoline, and equipment over the past three years but has only collected $9,000.

The health department is required by state law to address unkempt properties within the city. But there are few ways to collect the money spent doing the work. Health officials can put assessments on the homeowner’s tax bill but collecting that money can take months, if ever, because many pieces of unkempt property are abandoned or are in foreclosure.

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Mayor Rich Blankenship sympathized with Brown’s plight.

“Complaints about high grass have not slowed and you’re in a Catch 22. You can’t let the grass grow; people get upset (about a neighbor’s unkempt property) and I don’t blame them. So you get (environmental enforcement officer)Fred (Schaefer) to go do it but you don’t get paid for two or three years. It’s a good program but if you own the property, you should do it (keep your yard trim).”

Committee member Kevin Waldo agreed and said foreclosures pose an unpleasant problem.

“So many properties in Ironton get neglected completely. It used to be the banks (who hold mortgages) were local and they would send someone out to cut grass (when a house was vacant). But now, banks are in other places,” Waldo said.

Brown said one part-time employee’s hours will also be watched more closely as this was part of the reason for the cost overrun in the Weeds and Seeds program.

The health department food service program was put on probation after Ohio Department of Agriculture officials determined a former sanitarian was not meeting all the state requirements. That person is no longer employed and someone new is in that position, but while the department was on probation, it could only charge minimal amounts for food service licenses. Brown said the department is no longer on probation but the hit to her budget was huge.

“We worked hard to be able to bring the fees up,” she said. “We’re down almost $7,000. We’ll be back up to $18,000, nearly, next year.”

The health department also lost a grant that helped supplement the budget.

Brown told the committee another hit to her budget came when the Ironton City Schools decided not to have her office give flu shots this fall and instead got CVS pharmacy to do it. The health department charges $15 for each vaccination; the flu vaccine costs $10.25 a dose. While that’s a small amount of money, it was money coming into her budget.

Contacted after the meeting, Ironton City Schools Superintendent Dean Nance said the schools changed its insurance carrier and the new carrier, Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, considers flu shots preventive medicine — something they will provide free to the consumer. Blue Cross, he said, suggested to a school employee that the district use CVS and that’s what was done. Nance said he has spoken with Brown and, the city health department does take BC/BS insurance. So, in the future, the city schools will check with several agencies before deciding what agency will give the flu shots.

The committee recommended transferring half the amount needed now, to cover expenses to the end of the year and then, if necessary, the rest after the first of the year.