URBANA - As Champaign County residents prepare to enter their second week without many public health services, Champaign-Urbana Public Health District officials say they are dubious about accepting an unusual - and contradictory - proposal put forward by Champaign County Board Democrats on Monday night.
Under a proposal suggested by county board member Robert Kirchner, D-Urbana, the county board would approve a five-year contract with the district to provide public health services to county residents while, at the same time, invoking a one-year contract termination clause.
The votes to approve and then cancel the contract could come at Thursday night's county board meeting. The board meets at 7 p.m. at the Brookens Administrative Center, 1776 E. Washington St., U.
Kirchner argued during a Monday night Democratic board caucus that acting upon the termination clause would not necessarily mean the contract would end. The decision to terminate the contract would then rest in the hands of the nine-member Champaign County Board of Health, he explained, where he said the statutory authority lies.
It was the district that insisted that the county board must approve any termination clause along with the county board of health, he explained.
"If we give one-year notice, it puts the contractual responsibility back where it belongs, on the county board of health," Kirchner said. "It places responsibility for county health services back where it belongs, with the county board of health. It makes clear to the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District they need to work with the county board of health.
"Finally, consistent with the law, it gets the county board out of micromanaging the county board of health."
Many public health services for county residents ended a week ago, after the county board voted 13-11 on May 22 to reject the final contract offer from the district. The county has for the past five years contracted with the district for public health services in the county outside of Champaign-Urbana.
Among the services that ended last week were home nurse visits for shut-ins, restaurant inspections, well and septic system inspections and immunization and wellness clinics.
District Board of Health President Linda Cross said late Monday she found the Democrats' proposal "unusual."
"I'm not sure I see any point having a contract for services when you're going to spend the year shutting down services," she said.
Meanwhile, public health district Executive Director David King said he believes the proposal "is a problem."
King noted that he gave nine district employees termination notices last week, effective June 15, after the county contract expired.
He said those employees, if they are rehired, are likely to keep looking for jobs and take any other offers if the county contract is so uncertain.
"We need stability if we're going to hire employees," King said. "That's why it's a five-year contract."
As for whether the three-member district board would approve the contract, King expressed reservations.
"It would be my board's decision," King said. "I don't know if my board would support that. I don't think that's what the board intended.
"I do think it's a problem to exercise it at the beginning and threaten to 'take my ball and go home if I don't like the way something goes on a given night,'" King said. "I don't think it's a good idea."
Though his board has already approved the contract offer, King said any contract would have to be signed to become final.
King also said he believes some county board of health members, possibly even a majority, want to form their own health department instead of contracting for services with the district.
"Some of these issues seem to center on control and if you have your own health department, you have control," he said.
While a solid majority of Democrats supported Kirchner's proposal, it was bitterly criticized by Tom Betz, D-Urbana, who called the plan to terminate the contract "unethical, outrageous and disgusting."
"I would never enter into a contract with the intent of dissolving it," Betz said. "It is outrageous."
Betz then said he would vote for the proposal so Republicans would not get credit for saving public health. Kirchner had earlier indicated he had Republican support for his idea.
Betz and Kirchner's confrontation continued out into the hallway after the caucus, where Kirchner grabbed Betz's arm and muttered: "If you ever use the word unethical in reference to me ..."
Betz then pulled away, saying: "Don't touch me."
"I'm tired of your speeches to the media," Kirchner said as he stormed out the door at Brookens.
Meanwhile, The News-Gazette has learned that county board members have been approaching health departments in neighboring counties and asking them if they would be interested in serving Champaign County residents. In at least three cases, the county has gotten a negative reception.
Cathy Hayden, administrator of the Douglas County Health Department, said county board member Patty Busboom, R-rural Urbana, and another woman visited her office on Friday.
Hayden said her nine-employee department is too small to serve Champaign County and that she rejected the overture.
Connie Keelin, administrator of the DeWitt-Piatt County Health Department, said her board of health decided they aren't interested in serving Champaign County at a meeting last Wednesday.
"Basically, everyone felt the three boards need to work out a solution," she said. "They all just need to work it out."
Stephen Laker, administrator of the Vermilion County Health Department, said he's talked with Kirchner about a proposed contract. Kirchner, he said, called him a week ago and asked if he was interested.
"I said 'not very,'" Laker said. "We're busy enough."
Laker said it would take significant time to add staff necessary to provide services in Champaign County.
"It would take a considerable investigation and, quite frankly, the question would be: 'Why can't you people get along?'"
But Laker said he is bringing the issue to his board of health for consideration at its June 17 meeting.
You can reach Mike Monson at (217) 351-5370 or at email@example.com.