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Putnam County health layoffs mulled

SCOTT DEPOT, W.Va. -- The Putnam County Board of Health discussed laying off the entire staff for the county's health department during an emergency meeting Friday.

The health board, however, didn't have a quorum of its members to vote on that proposal.

Board members proposed giving the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department control of the agency's clinical services while allowing the Putnam board to retain control of all other aspects of the Putnam department.

The agency employs 13 full-time staff members and one part-time worker, and, according to Putnam health department interim administrator Lolita Kirk, while some of those employees might be rehired by the agency, it is unlikely that every position will be re-established in the foreseeable future.

"We, as a board of health, have to consider what's best for the residents of Putnam County," said board member Joe Haynes. "At least in my opinion -- and I think the board will back me up -- this is in the best interest of Putnam County."

A financial evaluation of the Putnam health department showed that the agency owes more than $200,000 to vendors for rent and other expenses, as well as an additional $100,000 by July to meet current operating expenses.

Kirk, a Kanawha-Charleston Health Department administrator appointed June 13 to advise the board about stabilizing its finances, said the financial insolvency of the agency is too serious to consider even a partial reduction in staff.

"I told the board that, while they could consider a partial reduction in force to try to maintain what they were currently doing, they were not going to be able to maintain it for very long -- even if they went to a 50 percent reduction in staff," she said. "Once you do that, you're talking about a reduction in services."

Regardless of its debt, the agency is still projected to fall $30,000 short on its current obligations by July 1, the start of a new payroll period.

Agency officials called an emergency meeting to vote on the proposal and attempt to complete the process before July 1. The Putnam health department will have to find a new office and trim its staff before the end of the month.

Health board members planned to vote on the proposal during their emergency meeting, but they did not have enough members of the board present to carry out the vote.

Two of its members, Haynes and Ryan Lockhart, were present at the meeting, and a third, Jim Dillon, was present during the executive session by phone. However, Dillon couldn't be reached on the phone when the board resumed in open session.

"If we keep going down this path, we think, sooner or later, the residents of Putnam County will be impacted," Haynes said. "This is the best way we can continue providing the services, we can work on retiring the debt and, at some point in the future, whether that's sixth months, a year or two years, we can re-establish the Department of Health here."

The board and Kirk will have to find a new space for the DOH before July 1, but Kirk said she does not anticipate a disruption of services to residents. She said the new location will be well publicized throughout the county.

Health board members will still make decisions regarding the health department with input from Kirk, and she said the measure should help the county expand its offerings to cover certain vaccines and other services it was unable to provide in recent months.

The agency's financial problems stem from less revenue than anticipated when the health department moved to its current location several years ago, as well as more than $100,000 in legal bills it has paid to defend itself in two recent wrongful-termination grievances. Part of the department's debt includes $18,000 owed to the IRS, $36,500 in vaccination costs and $8,570 in state taxes.

"The legal fees ended up being a great deal more than anybody anticipated," Haynes said. "The previous administration showed some bad judgment in what bills got paid when, so that some of these attorney fees were paid before other things -- vendors, rent, things that should have been at the top of the priority list."

According to Haynes, the previous administrator did not bring the issue before the health board before paying the legal fees. The health department lost both grievance lawsuits and was ordered to reinstate the employee involved in both grievances and pay her back pay. The health department paid Charleston attorney Karen Miller more than $100,000 in legal fees and still owes her more than $20,000.

Kirk said the board must call another special meeting to vote on the measure within the next few days. After it has been approved at the county level, the West Virginia Division of Personnel board also must approve it.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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