METHUEN — City Council Chairman Sean Fountain said he stands behind the council’s vote to eliminate the position of health director, even after the state killed a $325,000 regional health grant as a result.
State public health officials pulled the plug on the grant in August. The decision came after Methuen councilors voted in June to cut then-Health Director Brian LaGrasse’s $73,149 salary down to $1, effectively eliminating the position.
LaGrasse had served as administrator for the four-year grant, which was awarded in 2012 to help financially strapped health departments in Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill pay for a full-time public health nurse and part-time environmental health inspector. The decision to cease grant funding after this year means the three cities will lose out on $214,000.
Last week, Fountain told The Eagle-Tribune that a majority of councilors felt LaGrasse’s job wasn’t needed, given that the two larger cities of Lawrence and Haverhill both operate without a health director.
“It was never a personal thing,” said Fountain. “It was never a job performance thing. We thought we could get by without the position.”
The council also reduced public health nurse Amy Ewing’s work week from 35 to 20 hours, which saved $25,000.
Before the cuts were made, Fountain said councilors had heard about potential problems with how the grant was being administered, specifically with how LaGrasse and Ewing were splitting up their work time between the grant and their regular responsibilities within the city’s Health Division. Efforts to investigate were “hampered” by the city, Fountain said.
“We were kind of pushed off to the side,” said Fountain. “The inside word was there were already questions about this grant. But no one will say it.”
The state Department of Public Health (DPH) has yet to release any documents related to the regional health grant or the Methuen budget cuts, which The Eagle-Tribune requested under a Freedom of Information Request on July 26.