Health Forward Foundation

Changes Leave Questions for the Future of Public Health in Johnson County

A restructuring of Johnson County government has eliminated the stand-alone Health Department, leaving at least one commissioner worried about the future of public health services in the county.

As part of continued belt tightening, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners voted recently to merge the health and environment departments into a single Department of Health and Environment. The merger comes on the heels of several changes within the Environmental Department, including another cost-cutting decision to turn food inspections over to the state.

Commissioner Edward Peterson – along with several speakers who testified against the merger at the commission’s March 1 meeting – is mainly concerned that the environmental mission will be diluted in the new department. He was the lone dissenter in the 5-1 vote to create the new department. One commissioner was absent.

Peterson noted findings released last month from a survey conducted for the Overland Park Chamber Foundation. The results gauged attitudes of registered voters and business representatives.

In both samplings, 65 percent of the respondents said the county is headed in the right direction. About 60 percent of the voters (and 52 percent of the business representatives) said local government spending in the county “should remain the same”

“Most of our residents are not demanding reduced services,” Peterson said.

He said he was worried that further reductions proposed for next year would end up “cutting services people don’t necessarily want to cut, and public health is going to be in there.”

At the urging of County Health Director Lougene Marsh, the new department will have a deputy director that focuses on environmental issues. She is director of the new department.

In one sense, the budget debate pitted food inspections against pregnancy services, said Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County, a planning and coordination agency.

“If I had to make the trade-off between more prenatal care and service for low-income mothers and the food inspections, I’d choose the prenatal care,” Wulfkuhle said. “In the long term, that’s got the greatest benefit and potential to help kids get off to the best start.”

Jason Wesco expressed confidence in Marsh’s ability to emphasize both facets of the new department.

Wesco is the new executive director of the Health Partnership Clinic in Johnson County, and he knows Marsh from her previous position as director of the Flint Hills Community Health/Lyon County Health Department in Emporia.

“She is an incredibly capable woman,” Wesco said. “She is very committed to public health and environmental issues. She understands how it works.”

The county projects annual savings of as much as $556,000 by eliminating positions and creating other efficiencies through a combined Department of Health and Environment. This year’s county budget is $810.6 million.

Through the recession and its aftermath, the county’s property tax revenue has dropped by 8.4 percent – from $182.4 million 2009 to $167 million expected this year.

The county has trimmed $36 million from its budget since 2009, and it has eliminated the equivalent of 337 full-time positions during the past three years. Late last year, 175 employees participated in an early retirement program.

The county expects to save about $150,000 annually turning food inspections back to the state. Food-safety is a state function, but since 1993, Johnson County has conducted the inspections under a contract with the state that allowed the county to keep 80 percent of the food-license fee revenue.

Personnel flux within the Environmental Department made this a good time to consider the merger, Marsh said. Eight workers in the department left through the early retirement program, and six other food-service inspection workers are transferring to other positions in county government.

A merged department can better serve the community by coordinating responses to issues like the cryptosporidiosis outbreak that closed pools early for the season in August, Marsh said.

She did not view the merger as a triumph of prenatal services over food inspections. But, she said, if you want to single out those two priorities in the shuffle, the pregnancy services are more important to protect than a local service that will be taken over by the state.

“The women that we are serving in our prenatal program,” she said, “would probably not be getting any prenatal care if they weren’t able to come to us.”

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