EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 14, 2013

Health board chairman: City Council put public at risk

Member defends cuts, 'we are here to save money'

By Brian Messenger

---- — METHUEN — The chairman of Methuen’s health board claims the City Council put the public at risk by slashing the Health Division budget by nearly $100,000.

Ray Wrobel handed each councilor “cease and desist” letters Wednesday night, ordering them to restore within seven days funding for the health director and public health nurse positions.

In late June, councilors 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 to save $25,000.

Without the funding, Wrobel wrote that the health board “is unable to effectively perform the duties and functions required of them” under local and state laws and regulations.

“As a result, the public health of the residents of Methuen is at risk,” Wrobel wrote.

“In accordance with the Board of Health’s authority to protect public health, the board hereby orders you to cease and desist withholding the necessary funding to fully staff the Health Department immediately,” he wrote.

Local health officials spoke out against the budget cuts at Wednesday’s council meeting, including Wrobel, health board member Cherie Lynn Monahan and Cheryl Sbarra, senior attorney for the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards.

“In a city of 47,000 people, it is very unusual not to have a health director,” Savara told councilors.

Wrobel asked councilors why they made no effort to reach out to the health board before cutting their budget.

If they communicated with the board, Wrobel said the council would have been told about the numerous responsibilities of the director and nurse, and of their involvement with a $325,000 regional state grant.

Before distributing the letters, Wrobel asked the council to reconsider its vote and restore funding for both positions by instructing the mayor to pull the required money from the city’s reserve fund.

Councilors Michael Condon and Jennifer Kannan fired back.

“For this community, and shame on us, to go out and frighten our people and tell them there’s a health risk — we are not here to frighten our people,” said Condon. “We are here to help them. We are here to save money and we’re here to do the right thing.”

Kannan noted that both Lawrence and Haverhill do not employ health directors. And while the director position was cut in Methuen Kannan said the city’s Health Division staff remains in place to do the job, she said.

“I don’t believe any member of this council would put this community at a health risk,” said Kannan.

Councilor Lisa Ferry said she was told LaGrasse had continued working since July 1, when the budget cuts took effect. In response, Community Development Director William Buckley said LaGrasse has been laid off.

Both LaGrasse and Ewing have filed labor grievances as a result of the budget cuts. Mayor Stephen Zanni said recently he will look to transfer money in an effort to temporarily restore funding for both the health director and public health nurse.

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

Wrobel’s letter to councilors orders them to restore funding within seven days.

“Failure to comply with this order will result in additional action by the Methuen Board of Health,” wrote Wrobel.

On Thursday, Wrobel would not discuss what additional actions the board may take. He said the health board will explore their options Tuesday at a meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m.

“We do have several options,” said Wrobel. “We’re checking with the assistant city solicitor.”