ELYRIA — The wait continues and so does the debate about Elyria public health.
On Monday night, Elyria City Health District employees passionately pleaded for their jobs while City Council members pondered if now is the time to dismantle the city service provider.
However, the more-than-hourlong conversation did not produce an answer to the provocative question: Should Elyria abandon its health department in favor of joining the Lorain County General Health District, which would subject Elyria residents to a property tax increase and put nearly 20 city workers out of work.
City Council President Mike Lotko, D-at large, sensing there wasn’t a consensus among the 11 Council members, elected to table the vote for another two weeks.
“Let’s just think about this for a bit,” he said to the crowded Council chambers. “We can come back in two weeks and decide.”
Councilman Larry Tanner, D-1st Ward, said he didn’t need time to think.
“The residents don’t want us to get rid of their health department,” he said. “They elect us, and I will be listening to them.”
Life or death
It was a couple of years ago when Aretha Dalton-Austin moved back to Lorain County and took a job with Elyria’s health department.
The public health outreach worker said she had other offers.
“But when I found out our African-American babies were dying, it did something to me,” Dalton-Austin said. “It hurt me.”
Infant mortality is an issue the Elyria public health agency has taken on as a key to its mission. As defined as a child dying before its first birthday, the average mortality rate in Ohio is roughly 7.7 deaths per 1,000 live births. In Lorain County, the rate is about 6.8 deaths per 1,000 live births.
However, for African-American babies, the rate is more than double the state average. Learning the alarming statistic served as a call to action for the Elyria health department and for the last several years through a series of grants, it has increased outreach to at-risk families.
Portable cribs go to families in need, and home visits allow outreach workers to track families month after month. That’s the work Dalton-Austin said makes her happy to work for the city’s health department. She implored Council members to think of Elyria’s families when making decisions with wide-ranging implications.
“Women come to the health department pushing a stroller with a baby on the hip,” she said. “Talk to these women and you will find out that stroller is one we gave them as an incentive so we can keep track of those babies … If you look at our records, our records show we are keeping babies alive.”
To illustrate some of the lives changed, public healh worker Belinda Gray displayed before Council a bulletin board of smiling babies and mothers. Each face, she said, represented the future stars of Elyria that are alive today and not reflected of sad statistics.
“We don’t do this for the money,” Gray said. “We do it for the love of the people we serve.”
Time to plan
Voting to end services in Elyria and signing up with the county in less than a year has Councilman Marcus Madison, D-5th Ward, working to slow down the process in hopes of creating a better transition plan for employees and residents.
Madison called on his fellow Council members to reject the presented plan — Mayor Holly Brinda recommended the health district merger back in March — and instead commit to a year of study.
“I think mergers should be done the right way and with a little more due diligence,” he said. “It should be done in a way that people know where they are going. I’m not just talking about the employees, but the residents who come to the health department for services.”
Madison said the current plan was not a merger, but a shutdown of the city department and “hoping that someone else picks up the pieces.”
Elyria Health Commissioner Kathy Boylan said Elyria still could access a Local Government Innovation Fund grant the Elyria heath department sought and received years ago to study the feasibility of merging with the Lorain city health department. Those talks broke down some time ago and now Lorain is joining the county.
However, Elyria still can use the grant with the county as its merger partner.
“It could answer some of the questions of how does this happen,” she said.
Brinda is not in favor of that plan, which she said would only prolong the inevitable.
“I’m not sure ripping off the bandage slowly is good for the patient at this point,” she said.
Deciding now will give the city eight months to come up with a transition plan.
“A year and 8 months is not going to make any difference,” Brinda said.
She echoed the sentiment of Councilman Jack Baird, R-at large.
“I’m not sure what we are going to gather by waiting,” he said.
Councilman Mark Craig, I-4th Ward, said he generally favors regionalization but is not sold on this health department merger plan.
“I think the process should be orderly and have a transition,” he said. “This is what should happen.”