HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Ottawa County health officer Adeline Hambley is warning large budget cuts to her department could put the community’s health at risk.
When Ottawa Impact took over the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners in January, they attempted to oust Hambley and replace her with Nathaniel Kelly. That led to Hambley suing the board for wrongful termination.
With the lawsuit still going through the legal process, Hambley remains in charge of the health department. Now, she says it’s being gutted.
“At some point, there’s a point where you can’t cut anymore and function,” Hambley told News 8 in an interview Wednesday morning. “There’s a tipping point of, we can’t operate and exist anymore.”
With budget season approaching, Hambley recently asked for about $6.4 million in general funds from the county. She says it’s around the same amount as last year.
But Tuesday, County Administrator John Gibbs emailed her that she would need to prepare by Thursday for just $2.5 million. That’s 60% less money, Hambley said.
Hambley said it’s not only impractical but it’s going to affect services that businesses and residents rely on.
“It’s not something we can do,” Hambley said. “It’s an absolutely ridiculous ask to do within two days.”
In a social media post, Hambley claimed the budget cuts could be punishment for her lawsuit against the board.
“If the Commission moves forward with this level of budget-slashing, I believe it will be a clear act of unlawful retaliation against me for bringing a wrongful termination suit,” she wrote.
Gibbs’ email came after a Monday meeting where Chairman Joe Moss said it’s time to put the health department’s funding back to historic levels before the pandemic.
“I think would be a wise use of taxpayer funds is to look at the general fund allocation for public health back towards kind of its historical standard over the last ten or so years,” Moss said.
“We’ve seen also the reaction to the responses with the people of Ottawa County asking for a new direction, making sure that the county prioritizes freedom,” Moss continued.
News 8 reached out to Moss early Wednesday afternoon but has not yet heard back. In a news release posted on his website, Moss said too much health department funding during the pandemic interfered with schools and parental rights.
“A majority of the current Board of Commissioners has clearly stated they will prioritize limited government, family values, individual freedoms, and parental rights,” Moss wrote. “It is time for Ottawa County to rein in the out-of-control expenditures and augmented influence of the Public Health Department.
In a statement to News 8 Wednesday afternoon, Gibbs said the proposal makes sense and will help Ottawa County taxpayers.
“It is perfectly reasonable to expect that the Department of Public Health’s budget and general fund contribution match their average levels over the pre-COVID period 2009-2019,” Gibbs wrote. “Returning to those historic budget levels, which fully met all service level requirements in meeting the health needs of our citizens, demonstrates fiscal responsibility that would save taxpayers millions of dollars.”
Hambley disputed the claim that the proposal returns funding to pre-COVID levels.
“The conversation around, ‘Well let’s bring it back to pre-COVID,’” she said. “But what is being asked for again is not pre-COVID.”
Hambley said the request is $500,000 less than in 2009, the height of the recession. Hambley also claimed it doesn’t account for population growth and rising inflation.
On his website, Moss said the health department will ultimately have $9 million. He suggested Monday that at least $5 million in federal and state grants could fill the rest of the need.
“(It will provide) the department the funds to fulfill statutory requirements and meet the needs of the community as it did historically,” Moss wrote.
Hambley says it’s not that simple because many grants have to be matched and used for specific programs.
“There’s lots of complexities as far as how those grants are funded and how they’re used for and the obligation of the organization when you use those funds,” she said.
Hambley said there’s just no way the health department can operate with only $2.5 million in general fund allocation.
“The public’s health is entitled to these services,” she said. “They’re guaranteed these services. The public’s health, safe food, safe water, healthy kids and babies.”
Of the $2.5 million, Hambley said about $1.6 million goes to administrative costs essential for running day-to-day operations. That leaves about $900,000 for all the services the health department provides.
Hambley worries the budget cuts will force her to eliminate services and narrow others. She said it could affect the department’s ability to investigate outbreaks. Builders and homeowners could pay much more to get permits or wait “10 weeks” to receive them.
“(It also) means hearing, vision for children,” she added. “Dental for children. Our restaurant inspections, food safety, wells permits, septic permits. There’s all kinds of different programs that touch a lot of our community they’re not even aware of. There’s beach sampling, pool inspection, campground inspection.”
Hambley said she isn’t sure yet exactly which programs will be affected but predicted a substantial overall impact.
“What that looks like if all of it goes away, I’m not sure,” Hambley said. “But it certainly is a risk to our community’s health.”
A public hearing on the budget is set for Sept. 12. Final approval will come Sept. 26.