ELYRIA — If City Council is hedging on joining the Lorain County General Health District because it wants a guarantee city employees will get jobs, Lorain County Health Commissioner Dave Covell said he can’t offer such reassurances.
What Covell can say with certainty is that he needs passionate public health workers.
“Almost all of them have a good chance of getting a position because they are in positions that we need,” he said of Elyria’s nearly 20 health employees. “When we go through the merger, we will need public health nurses and sanitarians. We will need the employees working under grants to continue to do those grants.”
But Covell said he can’t offer promises in writing to absorb city staff.
At Monday’s City Council meeting, a parade of city health workers lobbied passionately for their department and jobs.
Afterward City Council President Mike Lotko, D-at large, said he approached Covell in the hopes of nailing down a specific number of employees who would lose their jobs if Council shuttered the Elyria Health Department and joined the county health district.
“We went through the employees, and it looks like one or two will lose their jobs,” Lotko said. “We’re dragging this out, and most people are not losing their jobs.”
Lotko has been an outspoken advocate of the merger, although some Council members take issue with the term and prefer to call the merger a shutdown. He said this is the best time to guarantee more city employees end up with county jobs.
He said the openings created by expanding the scope of the county agency will need to be filled. He said he listened to Monday’s impassioned speeches knowing the very employees hoping to save their jobs likely will be the first ones tapped for employment by his agency.
“That was the irony of listening to them,” he said. “There may be a couple of people in the department who feel they won’t have a position with us, and they are driving this. But most folks will have an opportunity.”
Covell on Wednesday would not agree with Lotko’s assessment that just one or two employees would lose jobs. But he said the conversation did take place and both health agencies have gone through the numbers informally.
However, the informal nature of some of the talks is the reason why Councilman Marcus Madison, D-5th Ward, and Councilman Mark Craig, I-4th Ward, are working on a joint Council referral they hope will bring some clarity to the conversation.
“It should be a services agreement that takes an inventory of what we have and what we need to do to go forward with the county,” Craig said.
Madison said he wants clarity on three areas: employees, services and costs.
“We have to make sure we are doing right by our employees, providing the necessary services to our residents and not just passing off the costs to residents and calling it savings,” he said.
Craig said the Health Department talks surprise him because it’s not similar to negotiations the city has undertaken with the Lorain County Metro Parks and LifeCare.
In both instances, the administration brought detailed proposals for Council to agree upon before voting.
“The problem with this is Council will have to do this work because the administration has taken the position they don’t want to take it on,” Craig said. “(Councilman) Madison has taken on a lot of foot work on this and provided Council with a lot of new information.”
Craig said he believes a written transition plan could help Council better make a decision in time to meet deadlines set by Covell and the county agency, which is working on a plan to go on the ballot in November with an operating levy. That levy — currently a 1-mill property tax — would be reduced to 0.5-mill if Elyria elects to join the Health District by 2017. However, Elyria voters would not vote on the tax issue, and the imposition of a tax without a vote has some Council members skeptical that a merger is the right thing to do.
Covell said the window for Elyria to decide is quickly closing.
On May 24, the Health District’s Advisory Board will vote to accept all the municipalities that have expressed interest in joining and turn its attention to levy plans.
“We are going to move forward, and as far as we are concerned, the conversation will be over for a while,” he said. “If Elyria decides it wants to wait a year, that’s fine. But we have transition plans to work on for the people who are coming. There is work to do.”
Lotko, unsure how the 11-member Council will vote on the issue, has said he could live with a year wait. But he still worries what the lag will do for employment opportunities for Elyria health workers.