Barry County Commissioner Howard “Hoot” Gibson listens as fellow Commissioner Jon Smelker supports his proposal to study the district health department and consider separation from Eaton County. Rebecca Pierce Editor
A proposal to look into the operation of – and possible separation from – the district health department set off a contentious exchange between Barry County commissioners Tuesday.
Commissioner Howard “Hoot” Gibson pitched the idea during a committee of the whole meeting. His suggestion was the match that touched off a heated exchange culminating in shouting, remarks dredging up past controversies and accusations of politicking to curry favor with voters prior to Nov. 6.
Gibson said his proposal was driven by questions from his constituents.
“What really got my attention was when I found out they had $100,000 in employee mileage last year. …” Gibson said. “If we had our own health department, our employees wouldn’t be traveling that much.”
He suggested a three-person committee look at what the state requires, considering number of employees and counties of comparable size.
Commissioners David Jackson, Dan Parker and board Chairman Ben Geiger serve on the county board's health department committee.
Parker didn't oppose a review of the Barry-Eaton District Health Department, but expressed dismay at the timing.
“What I’m concerned about is using our staff,” Parker said, pointing to high-profile projects for a new jail and Commission on Aging facilities.
Geiger questioned the funding required to do such a study.
Gibson replied that it would be a volunteer committee, like a compensation study the county had done, and would require minimal funding.
“I don't think you realize the depth of what you’re asking, Hoot,” Jackson pointed out. “We have $3.5 million in unfunded liabilities that you’re asking Barry County to take on part of that debt. We have history and programs and computers and systems. We have staffing requirements that, if you’re talking about a new health department, you’re not going to hand this to a citizen committee. You need a professional. You need actuaries involved.
“If you’re talking about splitting the health department, we could be talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars to evaluate the huge scope of the finances and the money and the size of the department and do it.”
“Before we think about committing the resources,” Jackson continued, “I think the thing you should really think about is, in 2008, our (health department) appropriation was $431,593. In 2019, our appropriation is $441,737.
“$10,144 in 10 years is what our appropriation has gone up. ... Yet some commissioners continue to hammer away at the health department. Their appropriation has been extremely stable.”
Jackson expressed his frustration with the proposal, saying it “goes against common sense when you're sharing resources between two counties,” that splitting the health department would result in a better deal for taxpayers.
He also disputed whether many constituents have expressed concerns about the health department, estimating that maybe five or seven people have questions – but the rest of the county is satisfied with the department.
When Gibson began to respond to Jackson, Geiger interrupted him by banging his gavel.
“I’m trying to contain my disappointment over using the health department for political purposes, for those who want to use the health department as a political punching bag before the election on Nov. 6,” Geiger said. “I'm not putting together a kangaroo court to come up with a political solution for the health department!”
Gibson tried to speak again. “You're saying a compensation committee ...”
“I'm saying I'm talking,” Geiger interrupted.
Commissioner Vivian Conner chastised Geiger for gaveling commissioners out. “When you gavel somebody out, don’t just gavel out somebody you disagree with.”
“This is too emotional,” Geiger said. “We don’t have any facts, but we have a consensus that we are going to look at what’s best for taxpayers – now is not the time.”
“Can we table it?” Conner asked.
“There’s no motion,” Geiger replied.
That’s when Gibson made a motion for a committee to be created to evaluate the district health department, seconded by Commissioner Jon Smelker so it could be discussed.
The action triggered a sharp rebuttal from Geiger, who demanded that Gibson describe his motion word by word, then shouted, “You just made one!”
Geiger then asked for parliamentary inquiry, instructing Clerk Pamela Palmer to read back the motion.
When Palmer replied, “I don’t have it,” Geiger said, “That’s because there is none.”
Geiger kept the focus on Gibson. “Do you want to do a study? ...I don’t know what you want.”
“You don’t want to know what I want,” Gibson replied, saying that Geiger is the one with the political agenda.
Geiger shouted at Gibson, “You don’t know what you want!”
Smelker, who pointed out that the health department budget is nearly $450,000 “and we don't have anything to say about it,” tried to cobble together pieces from the disjointed discussion before and after the shouting. Parker said he would second it.
Geiger said, “Madam Clerk, read the motion.”
Palmer replied, “It's put together in pieces.”
Smelker restated a motion specifying that three commissioners look into the health department budget and report back to the county board “to get these questions cleared up.” Parker supported the motion.
Geiger cautioned that no other commissioners could go to these meetings to avoid constituting a quorum. That is one of the reasons there's a problem with communication regarding the health department, commissioners agreed.
“That’s one of the issues that makes it difficult,” Geiger said.
“Yes, it is, because it says you can go and be quiet – and I cannot be quiet,” Smelker remarked.
Commissioners laughed, breaking the tension.
Geiger said that, as chairman, he would put together that ad hoc committee and indicated that Parker, Smelker and Heather Wing would be his choices.
In the vote on Smelker’s motion, Jackson was the lone dissenter.
Before the close of the meeting, Smelker asked Geiger if the board was going to set up a building committee to talk about a jail.
Geiger replied, “I have a plan.”
“At times your plans scare me,” Smelker replied. “Are we going to know about it?”
Geiger said that TowerPinkster, the firm the board picked as facilitator for the jail and Commission on Aging, would be brought in for a kickoff meeting at the end of the year.
Then Geiger apologized to Gibson. “If I was a little sharp with you, I apologize.”
“I'm used to it,” Gibson replied.
During public comment, Jim Enrietti of Barry Township said he heard the comments that just a handful of people are stirring this pot with the health department. “Mea culpa,” he said. “I feel I’m one of them with questions about the services I receive. If you think there are only seven, surely you’re not that naïve. You need to get out from behind that circle and into some of the other townships. I suspect you also hear from more than the terrible seven.”
Enrietti said the board provided some entertainment but there were comments that stung about political motivations and such. “Maybe some of us are glad we haven’t marked up those absentee ballots yet.”