WINFIELD, W.Va. -- The Putnam County Board of Health voted Wednesday to approve a contract that will transfer control of clinical services for the Putnam health department to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department for six months.The board voted 3-2 to sign the contract, which requires that Putnam County's state allotment of funds be paid to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, which must hire a staff and secure a new location for the Putnam health department by Aug. 1.Ryan Lockhart, a member of the Putnam health board, said he voted against the contract not because he thought there was a better option for the county, but because he didn't feel familiar enough with the contract's projected budget to approve it."It's nothing against the contract," Lockhart said. "I just struggle with the numbers at this point."
The decision is part of a plan to take care of the agency's fiscal instability.The Putnam board appointed Kanawha-Charleston administrator Lolita Kirk on June 13 to advise the board about stabilizing its finances. On June 24, the board voted to lay off the department's 12-member staff, an action the state's Division of Personnel approved. A more extensive financial evaluation of the Putnam health department showed the agency owed more than $290,000 to creditors. It has since paid $15,000 to its former landlord, Gary Young, as well as $20,000 to the Internal Revenue Service, according to board member and County Commissioner Andy Skidmore."Our current administrator has done a good job of going out there and collecting final balances, so I think we're close, but there is no guarantee everything has been accounted for," Skidmore said.A majority of the Board of Health's five members joined the board less than a month ago. Skidmore, the newest member of the County Commission, was appointed to the board July 1 following the departure of fellow Commissioner Joe Haynes, who left the board June 30. Two of its other members, Mike Keiffer and Bryan <co >Escue, were appointed July 9.The Putnam health board had explored other ideas prior to establishing an agreement with the Kanawha-Charleston agency, including a partial reduction in staff. The health board applied for emergency funding in April, but withdrew its request in May after being unable to meet time constraints set by the state Department of Health and Human Resources.According to Kirk, guidelines that dictate how emergency funds can be used do not allow agencies to apply for or use emergency funds to pay down debt that resulted from "mismanagement."The state is auditing the Putnam health department, which is something Skidmore said affected the Putnam agency's decision to withdraw its request for emergency funding."The audits had not taken place at that time," Skidmore said. "At that time, they only knew about certain debts. At that time, there were no issues with the state."According to Skidmore, the results of state audits will likely not be available for at least another month, and the time constraint they were working under made the contract with Kanawha-Charleston the board's best option.Young, who is president of G&G Builders and owner of the Teays Valley Corporate Center, disagreed.
"People in this county deserve to have a first-class facility that is located in a spot where it is easily accessible," Young said. "We have an image here that, in my opinion, is second-to-none when it comes to other counties in the state of West Virginia."Young is one of the department's biggest creditors, but believes the Board of Health could have spent more time exploring other options before deciding to contract with Kanawha-Charleston."It's hard to understand, when we can spend millions for an animal shelter, and millions for parks, and we can't come up with $200,000 in the county to bail our health department out," he said.According to state law, funds given to county health departments for operating expenses cannot be used to pay existing debts. Health board members hope to use county funds to pay a portion of their debt over the next six months, but the yearly stipend the County Commission gives the health department is only $150,000."After reviewing it, we can't put a Band-Aid on it -- sublet, cut in half," Escue said. "We have to have a fix, in my opinion, to be able to provide clinical services, to make sure restaurants are sanitary, to provide immunization. We have to have that somehow."As part of the contract, payments received by Kanawha-Charleston for the services it provides will remain the property of Kanawha-Charleston. If the Putnam board chooses to end the contract in December, any payment made that covers a period beyond that will be transferred back to the Putnam health department.
Kanawha-Charleston has one sanitarian working out of the Putnam County Courthouse, and is in the process of hiring full-time employees to work in Putnam.According to Skidmore, the hiring process has been slowed in part because the contract had not been signed, and although it's unlikely the health department will soon need as many employees as the 12 who were recently laid off, the board is confident there will not be a disruption in services."I have no question that Kanawha-Charleston will provide the services in an exemplary fashion," Lockhart said. "I don't think it's a numbers game. I don't think you look at the number of employees, I think you look at what the employees you have produce."The contract still needs approval from the Kanawha-Charleston health board before it is finalized. The next regular meeting of the Putnam County health board will be 6 p.m. Aug. 19 at the courthouse in Winfield.Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5100.