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Health District faces budget woes

The Kitsap County Health District at a special meeting this week approved a series of cost-cutting measures expected to affect the quality and availability of public health service.

“Public health funding is now in crisis,” said Health District Director Dr. Scott Lindquist. “We’ve slashed funding for years, and our staff has worked overtime to keep services running with less money. But pretty soon the public will feel the impact of these cuts.”

The cuts, which add up to about $100,000 per quarter, include the cutting of executive secretary and janitorial positions and a reduction in educational programs about tobacco and sexually transmitted diseases.

Programs concerning injury prevention and suicide prevention will also be cut.

“The cuts are making it harder for us to do an adequate job providing public health programs,” said Health District Assistant Director Scott Daniels. “Some of them are logical, like reducing the number of custodians. Some of them are difficult, like the elimination of outreach programs. But these are just the latest in a series of cuts we’ve made throughout the years.”

The public health financial crisis coincides with the county’s own budget difficulties, although Daniels said the county has not yet asked his agency to reduce the $1.2 million allocated from the general fund.

There are other similarities, though. Both departments have faced declining revenue for years and are attempting to compensate by stretching services and dipping into reserve funds.

And both departments have recognized that if spending continues at the current rate with no new revenue, they will go broke.

The cuts were also supposed to have included the closing of El Centro de la Familia, but the Bremerton-based clinic serving the Hispanic community received a 11th-hour reprieve through a $40,000 challenge grant from the United Way.

Donations to El Centro are accepted through the United Way or any Kitsap Credit Unit branch.

Lindquist, who was grateful for the last-minute save, said El Centro will face the same threat all over again when it starts to pull together its 2009 budget.

“They have given us enough time for us to find a better solution,” he said.

The other service earning a temporary reprieve from the budget axe is the closing of the agency’s Poulsbo satellite office. This follows the recent closure of similar offices in Port Orchard, Bremerton and on Bainbridge Island.

The decision to close the Poulsbo office, which would save $17,000 per quarter, has been deferred until the Sept. 11 meeting.

Lindquist said the closure of the office will not have a serious effect on the public.

“When you close a satellite, it doesn’t necessarily represent a loss of services,” he said. “You’re just eliminating a rent payment. You can station a public health nurse somewhere else — like City Hall, a doctor’s office or Olympic College — and still provide the service we were doing before.”

However, many of the functions will move into Bremerton, causing a greater transportation hardship for those who need the particular service.

Throughout the process, high-level Health District employees have been putting their money where their mouths are. One of the cuts is the freeze on hiring an executive secretary to support Lindquist. In the past, employees have given up parking privileges, and Lindquist has made a personal contribution to the El Centro fund.

“We haven’t been as visible in showing the cuts, and we’ve done a lot to cover the loss of services,” Lindquist said. “How many large administrative groups function without a secretary, or without parking perks? How many directors have declined to accept a cost-of-living increase for two years to pay for their employees’ COLA increase? We gave up our parking spaces so we could buy books for the ‘Welcome Home, Baby’ program.”

“Even though we’re cutting public health services, it’s widely recognized there’s a need for substantial additional investment in local public health services,” said Daniels. “This includes communicable disease prevention and response and preparedness for and response to the public health emergencies emerging from pandemic disease, earthquake, flood, or terrorism.”

“Recent disasters, both local and global, have raised concerns about including public health systems as a component of emergency preparedness efforts,” he said.

“In the last state legislative session, public health requested $100 million in new funding statewide,” Daniels said. “We received $20 million. State funding for public health has stayed flat while expenditures have gone up.”

He noted that state funding for public health amounted to 8.2 percent of budget revenue in 1997, while this year it has fallen to 4.5 percent.

The answer, Lindquist said, is for residents to encourage the state Legislature to increase funding. While Lindquist is not allowed to lobby for a cause (or encourage others to do so), he said the state provides the only viable, reliable funding source.

“Right now, we don’t need people to discuss the problem,” he said. “We’re looking for them to come up with solutions.”

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