EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 27, 2013

Officials say health director cut came without notice

Health board holds emergency meeting today in response

By Brian Messenger
bmessenger@eagletribune.com

---- — METHUEN — Health Director Brian LaGrasse said he had no idea his job was on the chopping block.

The City Council on Tuesday night cut LaGrasse’s $73,149 salary down to $1 — essentially removing the health director job from the fiscal year budget that begins Monday.

“I was kind of shocked,” said LaGrasse, who was present at City Hall for the 5-4 vote.

He was not alone. The Methuen Board of Health will hold an emergency meeting today at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the health director cut, as well as a work-hour reduction for public health nurse Amy Ewing that will save roughly $25,000.

“It did catch me off-guard,” said health board Chairman Ray Wrobel. “I don’t think there was any inkling.”

Wrobel yesterday emphasized that the health board must work in concert with the City Council. But he said councilors never contacted city health officials about their plan cut the Health Division budget.

“Communication is always key to effective management,” said Wrobel.

Also funded at $1 Tuesday night was a vacant network administrator job in the municipal Information Technology department. Zanni budgeted $75,655 for the position, which has sat vacant since February when employee Bill Lasonde died in a car crash. The council also trimmed $16,131 from various accounts in the city solicitor’s office.

All together, councilors cut just $189,848 from Zanni’s $145.3 million budget proposal.

LaGrasse oversees five employees: a clerk, code enforcement officer, two health inspectors and the public health nurse — whose salary will be reduced from $58,132 to $33,218 as a result of a reduction from 35 to 20 hours.

LaGrasse and other Health Division employees work under Community Development Director William Buckley. Councilors voting in favor of the health director cut cited a desire to “consolidate” operations within the division.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Buckley said he was “caught a little off guard” by the proposal, which was put forth by Councilor Michael Condon and supported by Sean Fountain, Jennifer Kannan, Tom Ciulla and Ron Marsan.

Buckley said LaGrasse possesses a number of licenses and certifications. Buckley said he also successfully managed Methuen’s EEE mosquito problem last year and is currently monitoring several ongoing tuberculosis cases in the city.

“I have my own reasons,” Condon told Buckley and fellow councilors. “I really wouldn’t want to discuss them on the floor. This position is not needed at this time.”

Councilor Jeanne Pappalardo questioned whether the cut was personally motivated.

“I just think the city needs a director of health,” said Pappalardo. “Brian has been an asset to the city.”

“I have no problem with the gentleman,” Condon responded. “None at all.”

After Tuesday’s meeting, council Chairman Fountain said it will now be up to the mayor and Buckley to reorganize the Health Division. Yesterday, Zanni said he and Buckley are still weighing their staffing options.

Zanni said Assistant City Solicitor Anne Randazzo will attend today’s health board meeting to explain the state law regarding municipal health requirements. “She’s going to fill them in on what can or cannot be done,” said Zanni.

Zanni said health board members may also review state ethical guidelines, since Condon is a restaurant owner and his business is subject to city health inspections. Condon owns the Sweetheart Inn on Myrtle Street.

Condon reiterated yesterday that he has nothing personal against LaGrasse. Condon said LaGrasse also came within one vote of losing his job last year, but that he served as the swing vote to save his job.

“I wanted to give the guy another year to prove himself,” said Condon. “We want to consolidate that department.”

“I don’t know Mike Condon very well at all, so I don’t know how this could be personal,” added LaGrasse yesterday.