EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 7, 2013

Zanni looks to restore health funding

By Brian Messenger

---- — METHUEN — The city will retain its health director and full-time public health nurse — at least for a few more months.

Mayor Stephen Zanni says he will transfer money in an effort to temporarily restore funding for the positions, which the City Council cut by nearly $100,000 before voting on an operating budget.

Councilors have trimmed Health Director Brian LaGrasse’s $73,149 annual salary to $1 and reduced public health nurse Amy Ewing’s work week from 35 to 20 hours, a move designed to save $25,000.

In response, LaGrasse filed a labor grievance last week and Ewing is expected to follow suit. Zanni will have until mid July to make a determination on the grievances.

The staffing cuts have been met with criticism by both Zanni and members of the Methuen Board of Health, who said councilors made no effort before last week’s vote to discuss their potential impact on the city’s Health Division.

“I think the process was wrong,” said Zanni. “The Board of Health was never contacted.”

The health board recently held an emergency meeting to discuss the cuts and board members sent a letter to Zanni calling on him to “take appropriate action to not jeopardize the public health, safety and welfare of the residents of the city of Methuen and immediately restore the ... positions to their full roles.”

The budget cuts have also drawn attention from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH).

In a letter, DPH Health Systems Manager Michael Coughlin reminded Zanni that the city is the “fiscal agent” for a state grant that provides shared public health services for Methuen, Haverhill and Lawrence.

The four-year grant is worth an estimated $325,000. Coughlin wrote that LaGrasse has served as “the program director for this project since its inception,” while Ewing has also participated.

“The effective elimination of Brian’s position and the reduction of Amy’s work hours raise very serious concerns for the department regarding the continuation of the shared services contract with the city of Methuen,” wrote Coughlin.

Zanni has said he will look to make budget transfers to keep LaGrasse and Ewing on the city payroll in the coming months.

“I’m going to try to resolve it,” said Zanni. “I understand they’re trying to save money. To me, jeopardizing the city by cutting the public health director is not a wise decision to make. They should reconsider it.”

If the council does not restore Health Division funding, the mayor could either consider pulling money from the city’s reserve fund to pay for the positions or propose another budget cut or transfer from within the operating budget.

“Those are his options,” said City Auditor Thomas Kelly.

LaGrasse oversees five Health Division employees: a clerk, code enforcement officer, two health inspectors and the public health nurse. The division works under Community Development Director William Buckley.

Councilors voting in favor of the health director cut last week cited a desire to “consolidate” operations within the division. All together, councilors cut just $189,848 from Zanni’s $145.3 million budget proposal.