Crunch time for consolidation of city, county health agencies

In January, we used the words “no brainer” to define the issue before the governing body of the Mahoning County District Board of Health, namely, a proposal from Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone for the city and county health systems to become one.

We have long indulged in such wishful thinking when it comes to government at all levels because we find it inconceivable that in this day and age there would be any hesitation to cut the operating costs of public entities. After all, that’s what taxpayers are demanding.

And yet, we are forced to face the reality that the status quo has a life of its own in the public sector. We’ve pushed for central purchasing of goods and services, including insurance, we’ve touted the advantages of 911 consolidation, and we’ve been firmly in Mayor Sammarone’s camp when it comes to the marriage of the city and county health districts.

But unlike us, the mayor, who has been in office since last August, isn’t willing to wait as long as is necessary to do what the public is demanding: Reform government.

Thus, he says, he wants an answer from the General Health District Advisory Council, the governing body of the county board of health, when it meets in March.

“If they don’t want to do it, that’s their choice,” Sammarone said last week. “We’ve said we’re willing to become part of the county-wide system.”

He also points out that while the county commissioners may be receptive to such a deal between the city and county, it isn’t their decision. The advisory council is an independent entity.

The Mahoning County District Board of Health consists of various villages and townships that are not incorporated as a city health district. The chief executive officer of each political subdivision serves on the district advisory council, which meets each March to appoint the members of the county board of health. The board is responsible for selecting the health commissioner.

In other words, the decision must come from individuals who do not answer to the commissioners, who are elected countywide.

The health district had a budget of $6.3 million in 2010 and a work force of 48. It receives no county general fund money, but is financed by property tax inside millage, fees, revenue from contracts and federal and state grants. It has contracts with Canfield, Campbell and Struthers to operate their health systems.

The Youngstown Health Department receives $2.67 million from the general fund and an additional $888,803 in grants. It has 24 full-time employees and four part-timers.

Summit County

For those who say that having one system to cover all of Mahoning County is not practical and would be too unwieldy, we point to Summit County, which recently went through consolidation and has declared the effort a success.

Matthew Stefanak, who will be retiring as county health commissioner after many years in office, is an advocate of consolidation.

Indeed, the Mahoning County Township Association has reacted positively to a report that focused on such issues as the difference between merging and contracting of the districts, the quality of services affected, cost savings and potential job losses.

The advisory council has a chance to strike a blow for good government when it meets in March. We urge the adoption of a plan to make the city and county health districts one.

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