By Brian Messenger
---- — 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.
Among the documents DPH won’t make public is a copy of the grant itself. According to an email from department spokeswoman Anne Roach sent Aug. 19, the information request “is being processed by our legal department.”
Further attempts to reach Roach for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
Both Zanni and Methuen Community Development Director William Buckley have said they have no knowledge about improprieties with the grant.
“I haven’t heard those questions and I’m not aware of anything being done improperly,” said Buckley.
Fountain said all his efforts to investigate how LaGrasse’s and Ewing’s work hours were spent were “hampered” by Buckley and the mayor’s office. Fountain said he was told his request to examine their payroll records would cost $2,500.
“I was met with a lot of obstacles,” said Fountain. “I inquired and my questions weren’t answered, as usual.”
Before the cuts were made, Fountain said councilors and city employees would call the department looking for LaGrasse, only to be told he and Ewing were tied up in a grant meeting or working outside of the city on grant-related projects.
“That’s what we heard all the time,” said Fountain. “Why are they working in another community when the Methuen taxpayers are paying their salaries? ... Methuen was getting the short end of the stick.”
The regional grant that created the Merrimack Valley Health District in 2012 was one of only five such awards statewide.
DPH sent Methuen a “notice of termination” for the grant on Aug. 7. An attempt in late August by Buckley and William Pillsbury, Haverhill’s director of planning and economic development, to salvage the grant was unsuccessful.
The health district will still be able to use $65,000 in unspent grant money already issued by the state.
Buckley said local officials will submit a proposal to use a large portion of that money to retain health inspector Rosemary Decie. Hired in May, Decie is paid $38 per hour as a consultant and typically works 24 hours per week, or one full day in each city. Buckley said Decie performs a variety of health inspections, ranging from septic systems to restaurants.
Buckley said regional public health nurse Elizabeth Malone was to be laid off last week. Hired in August 2012, Malone works out of Holy Family Hospital in Methuen and supports existing local health staffs with various clinics and anti-obesity initiatives. Malone is paid $50,000 a year and works 35 hours per week.
As grant administrator, LaGrasse served as the direct supervisor for both Decie and Malone.
According to a January 2012 press release announcing the grant, the nurse and inspector were hired to help local health departments address communicable disease control, chronic disease reduction and environmental health protection.
Members of the regional health district were expected to work with local hospitals and health centers to prioritize public health needs by developing a “community health assessment,” according to the release.
The grant was originally slated to run until December 2015. To date, Buckley said the district has received $111,000 and spent $46,000.