The Lewis and Clark County Public Health Department plans to cut positions and reduce services in an effort to balance its budget.
Last fall, county commissioners directed the health department to cut about $400,000 from the coming year’s budget. The plan includes the elimination of six staff and administrative positions, as well as cuts to immunization and health screening services.
“We are looking at a sizable budget shortfall, especially as fixed expenses continue to increase due to inflation. As a result, expenses such as rent, IT, personnel, etc. are increasing faster than the revenue of the health department.” Lewis and Clark County Public Health Officer Drend Niemman said during the City Commission’s executive meeting in November.
Immunizations and vaccines typically offered by the department may be limited to individuals without health insurance, and department officials encourage the public to see a primary health care provider for these services.
Health inspections at restaurants, group homes, day care centers, pools and spas are also at risk of being affected by budget cuts. The county typically conducts multiple health inspections of such businesses throughout the year, but the state only requires one inspection per year.
However, Nieman told the Montana Free Press in an email that without adequate staffing, the department cannot meet those needs and the public may be more vulnerable to illnesses such as foodborne illness.
In addition to job losses and service cuts, city and county officials are worried about keeping their budgets balanced. At a joint city-county commission work session in December, Nieman raised the question of what could be done to mitigate the impact of the cuts.
“We know costs are going to continue to increase,” Nieman said. “We know that revenue is not going to grow at the same level as spending, so we do need to think about how we can maintain high quality operations going forward beyond FY25 and the operations that are absolutely necessary to protect public health and still meet budget needs. I think the job Not finished.”
The budget balancing plan for fiscal year 2025, which begins July 1 of this year, also calls for a reorganization of the health department, moving its environmental health division from its current location in the City-County Building to the Murray Building, which houses the health department. The rest of the health department is housed in it. It costs the county about $46,000 a year to lease city-county space.
Lewis and Clark counties used CARES Act funds to replenish their budgets after the health department spent its cash reserves during the pandemic. Niemann said at the city commissioners’ first executive meeting in November that the county is now required to balance its budget without adding any funding.
The public health department’s total fiscal year 2024 budget is about $6.2 million, with 26 percent coming from taxes and 46 percent from grants, according to the county’s report, but it has struggled to keep pace with inflation and increased operating costs, Nieman said.
The budget plan includes both expense-reduction strategies and revenue-generating strategies, including charging higher fees to businesses that require inspections. Lewis and Clark County Commission Chairman Andy Hunthausen said the county currently charges far less for inspections than the $300,000 needed to operate the program.
The health department’s budget plan will be presented to the county Board of Health next month. The County Commission is expected to take up the issue in the spring.
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