ELYRIA — Lorain County Health Commissioner Dave Covell said it best: Politics and public health don’t always mix.
Covell, who runs the Lorain County General Health District, made the remark toward the end of a long meeting Monday night when Elyria City Council debated shuttering the Elyria City Health District. Merging with the county agency will reportedly save Elyria $700,000.
But as Covell and others in the room learned during the course of the night, big decisions don’t come down to dollars and cents. Often it is all about timing.
On Monday night, many Council members did not feel the time was right for a vote to end public health in Elyria as residents know it today.
“Bigger is not always better,” said Councilman Larry Tanner, D-1st Ward. “I want the Elyria health department. I don’t want Lorain County. It’s like our Police Department or Fire Department. We control them. We would never think of shutting them down, too.”
While Council did not vote on the merger during the meeting, a vote was taken to move the discussion from the Strategic Planning Committee to Council’s agenda. All Council members serve on the subgroup, but moving it out of committee where topics are discussed indefinitely puts the matter on a more-defined legislative path.
Still, only six of the 11 Council members were ready to take that step. Tanner, along with Council members Marcus Madison, D-5th Ward; Brenda Davis, D-2nd Ward; Mark Craig, I-4th Ward, and Mark Jessie, D-3rd Ward, all voted against the move.
The discussion will continue at 7 p.m. Monday during a special meeting of Council.
“We want to make sure our people are taken care of and not just our employees,” said Craig. “It’s about our residents, too. We have to make sure they are getting the same kinds and levels of services from people they know and trust.”
“Let’s do it now when it makes sense,” said Councilman Jack Baird, R-at large. “If we stop now, we will just be dealing with it later. The opportunity for people won’t be good, and we will be chasing our tail.”
Mayor Holly Brinda has recommended the merger happen now for several reasons, including the changing landscape of public health in Ohio, the push from state government for larger, leaner departments, a new law demanding all health departments seek and receive accreditation and the cost savings to the city.
The Elyria City Health Board is in agreement with Brinda.
“(The state) wants to see collaboration,” said health board member Timothy Beidleman. “I don’t think it’s about services. I think it’s about a belief that a single municipality cannot adequately provide public health.”
Beidleman said he went to an Ohio Department of Health meeting recently that left him with the distinct realization Elyria’s health department could not likely survive future demands from the state.
“The state has become very firm in what they want,” he said.
Covell said he understands the pressure. He said the county started the accreditation process in 2013 and won’t receive the designation until the end of the year. He called the work a herculean effort.
However, he said accreditation is the least of Elyria’s worries.
Instead, the time is now to start thinking about how public health will look in four or five years and start planning for it.
“My opinion as a public health official, not an elected official, is to think about this in terms of years from now,” he said. “Eventually the state will push us into this. Whenever it happens let’s make sure it’s as smooth as possible and easy for the residents.”
Covell did not try to sell Elyria on the advantages of joining with the county in an effort to silence naysayers. He said he’s not an elected official at the mercy of voters.
He said he just wants to provide the best public health services he can to the population he serves, which includes all of Lorain County except for Elyria, Lorain and Avon Lake.
If all three cities join, Covell said a plan is in the works to put a lower millage levy before Lorain County voters. But that also gives Elyria leaders another reason to pause as joining the health district will impose a property tax increase on Elyria residents.
That, coupled with the potential of employees in the department losing their jobs, has worked in concert to lengthen the conversation.
“I would feel a little more comfortable if the parts and pieces were improved,” said Madison. “I don’t think we are there yet.”