By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — The Board of Health is considering whether to take legal action against the City Council in response to last month’s budget cuts that slashed nearly $100,000 from the Health Division budget.
At a meeting last night, health Chairman Ray Wrobel told board members they could seek a court injunction in an effort to reverse the cuts — which trimmed Health Director Brian LaGrasse’s $73,149 annual salary to $1, effectively eliminating his job. Councilors also reduced public health nurse Amy Ewing’s work week from 35 to 20 hours, saving $25,000.
“This is a paradox,” said Wrobel. “A board of the city is going to be suing the city.”
But health board members Joyce Hersey, Cherie Lynn Monahan and Karen Ferullo said they want answers from the City Council before taking the matter to the courts. They also questioned why councilors never consulted the board before approving the cuts, which came as the council trimmed just $189,848 from the mayor’s $145.3 million budget proposal.
“They treated us like nonentities,” said Hersey. “I don’t believe in tit-for-tat. I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I think (legal action) would be a last resort.”
Ferullo said it will be much easier for the city to restore Health Division funding than to pay for a legal battle.
“It’s going to cost a lot more money to get a lawyer and go through all that, when someone can just get their job back,” said Ferullo. “I think there’s definitely an easier way. I just wish the council would have come to the board first.”
Also last night, the board discussed how to run the Health Division without money for a health director and full-time nurse.
While Mayor Stephen Zanni has said he intends to make budget transfers to temporarily fund the positions, details of that plan have not been released.
Health board members last night said they want a transition plan from the mayor and Community Development Director William Buckley by next Tuesday.
The board then intends to meet with Zanni and Buckley July 30 to discuss the transition plan before scheduling a meeting with the City Council.
Monahan said the transition plan must include cost estimates for a number of outsourced services, including mosquito population monitoring, septic system inspections and the hiring of an on-call nurse.
Such outsourcing will be necessary given the loss of LaGrasse and Ewing’s reduced hours, board members said.
“As we’re talking I’m seeing dollar signs and dollar signs and dollar signs,” said Wrobel. “There’s a lot of ramifications with this action.”
Without a health director in Methuen, Monahan added that the area could be at particular risk for mosquito-borne diseases, since neighboring Lawrence does not participate in a regional mosquito control program like most other communities.
Also last night, the health board unanimously approved a resolution requiring a full-time health director and full-time nurse.
Later in the meeting, Monahan responded to city councilors’ public comments last week that health board members were using scare tactics to sway public opinion against the budget cuts.
“I wasn’t trying to scare anyone,” said Monahan. “I was just trying to be factual about the loss of this position.”
Also attending the meeting was LaGrasse, his wife and another family member. LaGrasse said he worked his last day for the city June 29.