ELYRIA — The Lorain County General Health District Advisory Council voted 14-3 Tuesday to accept Lorain, Elyria and Avon Lake into the health district Jan. 1.
The District Advisory Council is made up of trustees from county townships, the president of the county commissioners and the mayors or executive officers of county villages.
Assistant County Prosecutor Chris Pyanowski, who serves as legal counsel for the health district, declined to say who voted against accepting the cities because votes were cast privately.
Prior to the vote, several township trustees and officials voiced disdain at the idea of accepting the three cities into the district.
LaGrange Township Trustee Rita Canfield said the health district’s levy barely passed the last time it was on the ballot.
Canfield questioned whether bringing three cities on board could cause problems for the health district at the polls in five years when the residents of Avon Lake, Elyria and Lorain can vote on health district issues.
“The cities of Lorain and Elyria have been unsuccessful in the past with their own ballot initiatives,” she said. “What’s to say they aren’t going to take us down with them?”
Lorain County General Health District Commissioner Dave Covell said he believes residents of Avon Lake, Elyria and Lorain will ultimately realize the health district is worth the $15 a year it will cost the owner of a $100,000 home if voters approve a millage decrease in November.
“We have to prove ourselves to those three communities, and I’m confident in our staff’s ability to do that over the next five years,” he said. “It is a risk, there’s no question about that, but I think it’s a risk worth taking.”
Others, like Sheffield Township Fiscal Officer Patricia Echko, wanted to use Tuesday’s vote as a way to hold Lorain and Elyria accountable for unequal sewer and water charges. Echko said portions of Sheffield and Amherst Township receive water and sewer services from Lorain and township residents are charged more for those services than Lorain residents.
Sheffield Township residents who receive water from Elyria are also charged more than Elyria residents, she said. Water and sewer services are vital to public health, she said, and if the cities now want to join the health district, a clause should be added into the contract demanding equal utility charges.
“If we’re going to partner, let’s partner as equals,” Echko said.
Pyanowski said there is no legal authority to attach such a clause to the current contract being developed.
Covell said charging township residents more for water and sewer is unfair. However, he said the health district can’t make the cities change billing practices, and the townships shouldn’t hold public health hostage over political issues.
Residents of Avon Lake, Lorain and Elyria won’t be able to vote in November on the county health district levy since the municipalities won’t be a part of the district until January, which has drawn concern among some city council members.
Avon Lake Councilwoman Jennifer Fenderbosch introduced legislation recently which tried to get Avon Lake into the district as of Aug. 1 as a way to allow Avon Lake residents to vote on the issue in November. The legislation also dictated that Avon Lake should have a seat on the Lorain County General Health District Board.
Fenderbosch’s legislation was rejected Monday after an emergency vote on a second reading. All Avon Lake Council members agree that joining the county health district is in the best interest of the city, Fenderbosch said, it’s just in the manner and the timing with which she and Council members Dan Bucci and Rob James take issue.
“The issue all along has been about the people’s right to vote,” she said.
Avon Lake Mayor Greg Zilka said he understands those opposed to having no say in a new property tax. However, Zilka said this was a special circumstance, and city officials had no choice but to join the health district. Council members exercised their rights as elected representatives in making the decision, he said.
Zilka said the city can’t afford to create its own health department, and he added that Avon Lake will likely get representation on health district board in the future.
“We’ve discussed this since mid-January for 16 weeks, and all angles have been examined,” Zilka said. “Absorbing all three cities can’t be done at once, and the transition has to be done in an orderly manner.”
Covell said having Elyria, Lorain and Avon Lake on board will improve the services the health district is able to provide to all Lorain County residents.
“We have an opportunity to do a lot more,” Covell said.
Covell said the Lorain County General Health District employs 82 people. He will meet with officials from Lorain and Elyria next week to make final determinations as to how many employees from those health departments will be absorbed into the health district.