Legal fees helped create Putnam health department's debt
SCOTT DEPOT, W.Va. -- The Putnam County Health Department has spent more than $100,000 on legal fees in a losing employee grievance fight.
Officials cite that expense as the main culprit in the looming financial crisis, which has forced the department's board to ask both the county and the state for emergency money to stay afloat.
The Putnam board of health has lost two grievances filed with the Public Employees Grievance Board by former employee Barbara Koblinsky. In both cases, the board has been ordered to reinstate former sanitarian Koblinsky and pay her back pay.
The board has appealed the most recent decision in Kanawha County Circuit Court.
They've paid Charleston attorney Karen Miller $115,328 and still owe her $36,138, according to financial records.
Meanwhile, Joel McKinney, who took over as administrator of the Health Department around the end of February, has applied for about $186,000 from the local board of health emergency fund through the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
The department is also undergoing an audit by the state that board members requested.
Last month, Putnam commissioners gave the department a $30,000 loan, and, in a letter urging the state to provide financial support, outlined the department's debt. The debts include: $80,800 in rent to Gary Young, president of G&G Builders; about $36,500 for vaccine costs; $18,000 to the IRS; $8,570 in state taxes; and $4,514 to the state Office of Technology.
Commissioner Joe Haynes, who sits on the county health board, said board members didn't know the full extent of the financial problems until McKinney took over.
"When we had a change of administrators and were told what kind of legal costs we had, I was stunned," Haynes said. "I can't speak for the whole board, but ... I would have certainly said, 'Holy cow, wait a minute, we're mounting up these kinds of legal fees, we need to do something different.' "
Haynes said board members did agree to hire Miller rather than utilize the county's attorney, but said, those "are some of the questions we're asking now. Why didn't we just use the county attorney?"
Previous administrator Jackie Fleshman, according to Haynes, recommended Miller to the board. She stepped down to take a job as an educator for the nonprofit group Mission West Virginia, according to its website. Fleshman had served as health department administrator since 2008.
In 2009, Fleshman fired Koblinsky, who had worked as a registered sanitarian at the health department for about two years, after she refused to meet with a supervisor without her union representative present.
In 2010, Administrative Law Judge William McGinley granted Koblinsky's grievance, finding the health department improperly denied her right to have a representative present.
The department was ordered to reinstate her with full back pay and benefits.
In June 2011, Koblinsky was suspended for, among other reasons, insubordination, according to the grievance board's order. Last year, Lewis Brewer, an administrative law judge, ordered the health department to reinstate her and pay her back pay and benefits from June 3, 2011, to July 26, 2012.
The health department appealed that decision, which is pending in front of Kanawha County Circuit Judge Duke Bloom.
Haynes said he couldn't discuss the grievances, as it's a personnel issue, but believes the audit will bring to light any financial wrongdoing or mismanagement of funds.
Problems with prioritizing bills could be part of the problem, Haynes said.
A $57,000 tax lien filed in July last year was lifted in November, according to documents on file in the Putnam County clerk's office.
McKinney said he's prioritizing what needs to be done to try to keep the department afloat. He has cut many non-mandated programs, ended relations with some vendors and relieved some contract workers.
"We're just trying to get back to the basics and start from the ground up," he said. "It's a financial crisis."
Reach Kate White at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1723.