OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Ottawa County Administrator John Gibbs defended proposed cuts to the health department with the clock ticking before the budget deadline.

The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners held a public hearing Tuesday on the proposed $263 million 2024 budget. The meeting lasted more than five hours.

One Allendale resident who spoke is a member of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, working in its Crisis Standards of Care committee.

“I want to implore you to consider their expertise, their training, their heart and the impact this has on the very people that when you become sick you turn to for care,” the woman said to commissioners.

Some public commenters cited a new letter sent to commissioners signed by more than 100 area physicians. They urged the board not to reduce the health department’s budget.

“The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a chronic underfunding of the infrastructure of public health as part of our local healthcare system,” they wrote. “Our goal should not be to return to this low level of investment into our collective health.”

The hearing came just days after hundreds rallied against the budget cuts outside the health department in Holland.

“County residents have shown with their voices and their feet that they support the health department and do not wish to see its funding cut,” one resident said Tuesday.

Health officer Adeline Hambley, who sued the board after it attempted to oust her in January, said in August that Gibbs emailed her advising her to prepare for a $2.5 million budget. Hambley later said that allocation would have forced the health department to close within four to seven weeks after Oct. 1.

The county released a new proposed budget last Wednesday showing the health department would receive $4.3 million instead. Hambley then responded saying while that amount is better, it isn’t good enough.

Hambley said it would make significant cuts to 13 of 16 health department programs. She said it would force a 73% cut to immunizations, a 55% cut to STD testing and prevention and a 36% cut to family planning. The health department also noted cuts to the Miles of Smiles and SEAL! Michigan programs, lowering funding for dental services for underinsured or uninsured kids.

“To be clear, these proposed cuts reduce services to the most vulnerable residents in Ottawa County, including women and children, at a time when the County is collecting record tax revenue,” the health department said.

From the start, Gibbs has said the lower budget’s aim is to return the health department’s funding to “pre-pandemic levels.” On Tuesday, he insisted “claims that the health department is being defunded” are “of course not true.”

“A lot of the hype out there is not really based on reality,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs said the health department’s reduced 2024 budget would still be higher than 2019.

“(A) 53% increase is obviously far, far higher than inflation or population growth,” Gibbs said. “I believe it was very prudent to take another look at that and make sure it’s at appropriate levels.”

Hambley’s office has said grants, not the county, funded increases in staff or funding during the pandemic.

Gibbs said all commissioners “support our health department” and want it to run appropriately but “at appropriate budget levels.”

He argued the cuts would save taxpayers money. He then pointed to other options that he said support public health, like private insurance and the board’s recent resolution “protecting childhood innocence.” The resolution, which the board passed 9-2, prevents the county from using resources on programs that “encourage the sexualization of children and youth.”

“Anything we can do, such as protecting childhood innocence which the board passed, those things go a long way to produce better health outcomes because they can prioritize stable two-parent families,” Gibbs claimed.

“It is not as though the county health department is the one and only thing that determines health outcomes,” he said.

The budget is expected to be approved two weeks from Tuesday, Sept. 26. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.