OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Ottawa County commissioners voted Tuesday to pass the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which has been the subject of much debate because of how much it is allocating to the health department.

Initially, commissioners linked to the conservative Ottawa Impact political action committee and Administrator John Gibbs indicated the Ottawa County Department of Public Health would get $2.5 million from the general fund. Ottawa County Health Officer Adeline Hambley said she had asked for $6.4 million.

After Hambley publicly derided the $2.5 million limit, saying it would shutter her department, commissioners and Gibbs said the health department would get $4.3 million for the upcoming year.

The general fund allocation eventually increased to nearly $4.8 million, the amount passed by the board last night in a 7 to 3 vote. Commissioners Lucy Ebel, Allison Miedema, Kyle Terpstra, Gretchen Cosby, Sylvia Rhodea, Roger Belknap, and Joe Moss voted yes, while Jacob Bonnema, Roger Bergman, and Doug Zylstra voted no. Commissioner Rebekah Curran abstained.

Prior to the meeting, dozens of demonstrators stood outside the county’s Fillmore Complex in West Olive, many holding signs in support of the health department. The signs said things like, “Support public health,” “Fully fund our health department” and “Public health: Where everyone is cared for.”

More than 70 people spoke Tuesday night, many sharing their opinions on the budget cuts to the health department. The majority spoke in opposition to the reduction in funding.

“This county deserves a public health department that does everything it can — whether you agree with it or not, that does everything it can for its residents,” said one resident who spoke at the meeting. “I have benefited my entire life and seen others benefit my entire life from the work of Ottawa County public health department. You might not have needed it yet, but you will at some point.”

Another speaker expressed her support for the budget during the public comment portion of the meeting. “I can’t believe people are saying, ‘Oh, the budget is being cut. Oh, we’re going to close our health department.’ … Give me a break. Do you think all these people really want to close the health department? Can’t people learn to operate within a budget?”

Hambley also addressed the commission and said County Administrator John Gibbs stated there would be “no cuts” to children’s programs under the proposed budget, a statement she said is untrue.

“Under the current budget proposed the health education program, which includes programming to children and families, including Ottawa food, the Ottawa Area Suicide Prevention Coalition, migrant farmworker health, Meet Up and Eat Up, Safe Homes, and substance abuse prevention programs, is being cut by nearly 50 percent.”

Hambley added, “At a time when inflation is up and more than 20,000 additional Ottawa County residents have signed up for Medicaid since 2019, this is not the time to cut programs that assist with healthy food access, suicide prevention, and substance abuse disorders,” she said. “No budget can sustain a 50% cut in funding and staff and maintain services and programs at existing levels.”

The department’s epidemiology department could also be at risk. Hambley said if state funding does not come through, general fund cuts would force the department to lose a third epidemiologist, which would put the county below the minimum service levels required by the state. When questioned though if the budget meets state requirements, the board’s legal counsel and Gibbs both said they believed so.

Demonstrators outside the Ottawa County Fillmore Complex show their support for the health department ahead of the commission meeting at which the budget was expected to be approved. (Sept. 26, 2023)
Demonstrators outside the Ottawa County Fillmore Complex show their support for the health department ahead of the commission meeting at which the budget was expected to be approved. (Sept. 26, 2023)

Commissioner Rhodea compared the total budget for the health department to previous years. The department received approximately $11.37 million in 2019, $12.6 million in 2020, $12.89 million in 2021, $14.2 million in 2022, and $15.36 million in 2023. This year’s allocation total is $14.38 million.

“I feel confident that we have arrived at a good number,” Rhodea said.

However, with $1.6 million dollars in general fund cuts from the initial $6.4 million request, Hambley said services to families and children will suffer.

“It has been difficult to create a plan for how these cuts would be implemented given the number of times the public health budget has changed over the past several weeks. My task now will be to identify exactly how your cuts will be passed along to Ottawa County residents. As health officer, I will continue to communicate transparently with you and with the public with the budget that you pass.”

Hambley has sued the Ottawa Impact commissioners for trying to oust her. That case is still pending.