With a sound budget and healthy reserve funds, the Putnam County Health Department will begin operating independently of the Kanawha Charleston Health Department on July 1 for the first time in six years, according to Lolita Kirk, incoming administrator for the PCHD.
The Putnam County Board of Health voted in April not to renew an agreement that contracted its day-to-day services through the KCHD, a deal that was made in 2013 when the PCHD buckled under mounting financial troubles, partially due to attorney fees for a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed successfully against the agency.
Then, it was more than $400,000 in debt, but today, officials say they are excited to move forward independently and serve Putnam County residents.
“From a board perspective, we certainly appreciate the fact that [KCHD] spent so many years partnering with us. We never want to minimize that — we couldn’t have done it without them,” said Cindy Farley, chairwoman for the Putnam County Board of Health. “But now we’re able to go back to being on our own, and we want to do that, like I think any agency would.”
For the past six years, Kirk — originally with the KCHD — served as interim administrator for the department. At last month’s Putnam Board of Health meeting, board members voted unanimously to appoint Kirk to the position permanently.
“We’re in great shape here, financially and otherwise, and it took a lot of work, but we said — six years ago — it would take about five to seven years to get back on our feet, and we met that goal,” Kirk said.
Through the partnership with the KCHD, the department cut its costs by about 40 percent, according to reports at the time.
While services were being contracted through the KCHD, Kirk said, that department handled everything from environmental health services, like food inspections, to investigating communicable diseases, like last year’s hepatitis A outbreak.
“The finances, and the very boring part of everything that kept it all running — the administration — that was taken over by Kanawha-Charleston,” Kirk said. “But our employees here, many of them, and the entire board, are from Putnam County. This is their home, this is their county, this is where they live.”
Not long after announcing its mounting financial troubles, the Putnam health board voted to lay off its 12-person staff, and the West Virginia Board of Personnel approved that decision shortly after.
Kirk said the KCHD offered to hire on a number of those employees at the time, however several opted to enter retirement while others declined the offers, and one stayed on for several years.
With its new independence, the PCHD is looking to hire for several positions, all of which are listed on the state’s Board of Personnel website. Board members already have started conducting interviews, Farley said.
The Putnam health department pulled itself out of debt in 2016, under Kirk’s leadership, but complications accessing records made it impossible for the departments to completely separate until last summer. They opted, however, to wait for the start of this fiscal year, which is July 1.
“It was in the middle of the hepatitis A outbreak last year, so we kind of had our hands full,” Kirk said. “Plus, everything is always cleaner when you start at the beginning of a fiscal year.”
Farley said she’s excited to work on rebranding the department in the county, and is eager to hear from residents as they proceed together.
“We’ll be reaching out to the community, all of us, and hearing what they have to say. We hope that will allow us to move forward even more in Putnam County,” Farley said. “We want to be a full-service health department for the county, and now we’re able to.”