STANTON — Numbers are beginning to emerge for Montcalm County’s upcoming budget scenario.
Controller-Administrator Chris Hyzer is projecting a $733,000 deficit for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. Last year, $1.3 million in cuts were made to balance the budget.
The Montcalm County Board of Commissioners Finance & Personnel Committee met with Sheriff Bill Barnwell and Mid-Michigan District Health Department Health Officer Marcus Cheatham on Monday to discuss how the proposed 2012-2013 budget would affect those departments.
Last year, Barnwell had to make more than $300,000 in budget cuts, or about one-third of the county’s $1.3 million in total cuts. This year, he is being asked to make $345,000 in cuts, or about half of the county’s $730,000 in cuts.
“It’s not a surprise to me,” Barnwell said. “We knew this was on the horizon. We’re the biggest, probably most expensive general fund item.”
According to Barnwell, $345,000 in cuts comprises almost 16 percent of the sheriff’s office budget and court security budget. Barnwell said $345,000 in cuts would mean eliminating five deputy positions, effectively ending 24/7 road patrol coverage in Montcalm County starting Oct. 1. The Greenville Department of Public Safety is the only other 24/7 road patrol agency in Montcalm County. A court rover position would also likely be eliminated.
“It’s not a pretty sight,” the sheriff said. “We are currently barely able to support 24/7 patrols. After the cuts, we will no longer be able to do so. There just simply will not be enough people to staff three shifts 24/7 with the remaining 10 uniform deputies.”
This does not include four deputies currently assigned to local townships and the Central Michigan Drug Enforcement Team (CMET), all of whom are funded by something other than the county’s general fund.
Barnwell is hopeful voters will approve a law enforcement millage proposal in the Nov. 6 general election. The 0.6 mill proposal would generate about $950,000 over two years to help fund the sheriff’s department.
The proposal is reduced from February’s request for $1.564 million over five years, which failed by 120 votes. As a result, Barnwell had to make cuts to road patrol coverage and the jail.
“That will hopefully cover the cuts we’ve sustained in the last two budgets and maybe carry us over a little bit to next year’s cuts,” said Barnwell, referring to it the millage proposal passes.
Barnwell hopes to release more information to the public via a Q&A brochure later this summer.
Cheatham gave commissioners an overview of how budget cuts have affected the Mid-Michigan District Health Department in recent years. The health department serves residents in Clinton, Gratiot and Montcalm counties.
“There are multiple threats to the health department’s budget,” Cheatham noted.
Those threats include the loss of state revenue sharing, a reduction in the 50 percent match from the state for local public health, a reduction in Center for Disease Control funding and the loss of local property tax revenue.
As a result, the health department budget has decreased from $6.4 million to $5.7 million over the past four years.
Health department officials have responded to the decrease in funding by reducing hours of operation, eliminating staff, freezing wages, postponing technology updates, eliminating all but essential travel and pursuing numerous grant opportunities. Officials also implemented a $25 surcharge for environmental health licenses for food and and permits for well and septic systems starting last October.
Reduced services include the frequency of restaurant inspections, the elimination of the breast and cervical cancer control program that provided screening to low income women and making hepatitis C (a disease that can cause cirrhosis of the liver) a low priority for investigation.
The health department is currently sharing computer technology, the electronic health records system, a medical director and an epidemiologist (a specialist in the study of the distribution and patterns of health in a specific population) with the Central Michigan District Health Department in order to save costs.
As a result of reductions, Cheatham said the average time to complete the investigation of a reportable disease case has increased from 18 days to 30 days and average wait times for the public to obtain a permit or well or septic inspection has increased from five days to eight days. Some have been delayed for months.
Cheatham said the Women, Infant & Children (WIC) program, which provides supplemental food to 2,000 low-income mothers and children in Montcalm County, is currently barely meeting minimum caseload goals. If the health department fails to meet caseload goals, the state may cut the WIC program in Montcalm County and fewer clients will be served in Clinton and Gratiot counties as well.
Cheatham recommended commissioners consider whether Montcalm County is getting good value for its current financial contribution to the health department. Clinton County has a population of more than 75,000 and Montcalm County has a population of more than 63,000. However, Montcalm County is contributing $425,661 for health services, while Clinton County contributes $391,015.
Cheatham explained that contribution amounts are based on the amount of services delivered in each county. Montcalm County is currently using 42 percent of the services for the three counties. Cheatham said this is because Montcalm County is heavily rural and uses a great deal of environmental health services, as well as the high unemployment rate in Montcalm County, which causes residents to use public health nursing services.
“The reality is, that in terms of services, Montcalm is receiving a subsidy from Clinton County,” Cheatham said.
Commissioner Tom Lindeman of Greenville observed that Clinton County is ranked No. 5 in the state for healthiest counties and Gratiot County is ranked somewhere in the middle while Montcalm County is in the bottom few of the most unhealthy counties.
Cheatham said renegotiating with Clinton and Gratiot counties for health department contributions will likely be a tough sell, but Lindeman believes commissioners should pursue the option in order to uphold their promise of service to the public.
“I would like to see us work on this,” Lindeman said. “I would like to make some sort of budget reduction. Where that’s going to come from, I can’t tell you.”
Commissioners took no formal action Monday, but agreed to start looking for ways to continue funding local health department services. According to Hyzer, the county would need to allocate about $20,000 to restore services to previous levels.