By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — The mayor said he’s had “a change of heart” and will not restore funding for a health director and full-time public health nurse, as he planned to do one month ago.
The City Council in late June 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 early July, Mayor Stephen Zanni said he would transfer money in the budget in an effort to temporarily restore funding for the positions. But yesterday, Zanni said the Health Division will have to operate without the funding.
“If we can save money, we’re going to do it this way,” said Zanni. “It’s a change of heart.”
Zanni said Community Development Director William Buckley will now oversee day-to-day operations of the Health Division in place of LaGrasse. The mayor said he will reassess how the division is operating in two or three months.
Zanni would not comment specifically when asked why he will not move forward with his previous funding plan.
“At this point I’m not putting any more into the budget for that,” said Zanni. “Right now, the intention is to have the community development director oversee that department.”
LaGrasse and Ewing both filed labor grievances with the city following the council’s budget cut vote, claiming the changes to their jobs violated their union contracts. Zanni denied both grievances July 18.
Councilors voting in favor of the health director cut have cited a desire to “consolidate” operations within the division. Working under Buckley, LaGrasse oversaw five Health Division employees: a clerk, code enforcement officer, two health inspectors and the public health nurse.
The staffing cuts were met last month with criticism by both Zanni and members of the Methuen Board of Health, who said councilors made no effort before their vote to discuss the potential impact on the city’s Health Division.
In the days after the cuts, Zanni told The Eagle-Tribune that he would 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,” Zanni told the newspaper. “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.”
The budget cuts also drew attention from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH).
In a letter last month, 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.