Health department merger could slow service and raise costs, Kent director says

image of the front of a brick building with a green sign indicating the Kent City Health Department
Kent Health Department. Gina Schlegel/The Portager

Kent’s top health official said merging the city’s health department with its Portage County counterpart would be detrimental to residents, possibly leading to more work for fewer staffers and higher costs and fees for services.

Kent City Council agreed and on Wednesday night fired off a resolution opposing the state’s apparent effort to abolish Kent’s health department.

They see Ohio House Bill 110, which includes language that could force a merger between the Kent and Portage County health departments, as a power grab that “is likely the first step in an effort by the State of Ohio to abolish the local Kent City Health Department so as to give greater control and authority to a centralized government in Columbus without regards to local needs,” the resolution states.

“For voluntary mergers, it might be beneficial. For forced mergers, it is not necessarily the best approach,” Kent City Health Commissioner Joan Seidel told The Portager.

Besides the possible loss of services and jobs, Seidel said she has seen merged departments suffer increased costs and licensing fees. She also questions if the county is able to absorb Kent’s unique needs.

“There’s more bureaucracy and it can take longer to get to resolutions of concerns,” Seidel said.

Looking at the experience of other merged health departments, Seidel’s concerns include more work to do with fewer people. Loss of jobs is a real concern as the county, funded by tax levies, may not have the ability to pay all the employees, she said.

Kent’s health department inspects restaurants, student housing and other rentals, tattoo and body art facilities, and public swimming pools and spas. It conducts rodent control efforts, monitors industrial wastewater, provides birth and death records, and provides nursing and mosquito control services.

It investigates public health nuisances, inspects sanitation vehicles and schools, and monitors on-site water systems. It also works with other area agencies to ensure that Kent’s health and safety is assured in case of a natural disaster or pandemic.

It’s a personal touch that Kent City Council member Roger Sidoti said a centralized administration simply cannot provide.

“That local piece is so critical so communication doesn’t break down. When you take that away and you centralize the decision making, I don’t know how Portage County could cover all the larger-population areas in the county,” he said.

Sidoti said he supports centralization when it makes sense, “but this one doesn’t make sense. They want to centralize the control and decision making.”

“It’s almost like saying you’re going to give up control of your children to someone who lives 100 miles away. They’re going to make decisions about your children from 100 miles away. There’s something wrong with that,” he said.

The Portage County General Health District has a staff of 54 serving a population of over 130,000. The Kent City Health Department employs seven, including Seidel, serving the 30,000 residents of Kent.

Portage County Health Commissioner Joseph Diorio said the county agency would anticipate collecting about $150,000 from Kent residents through a tax levy that he says generates about a quarter of the county health department’s annual costs.

Kent and county health departments provide similar services, Diorio said. If the departments merge, “the Portage County Combined General Health District would evaluate the partial environmental services being offered in Kent City and would hire staff as appropriate and based on the outcome of Sub. HB 110,” he wrote in a statement to The Portager.

Diorio said the county and city health departments have worked collaboratively for years, and noted that the Kent Health Department staff was very helpful in assisting the county agency with its mass clinics and vaccine campaign. The county agency will monitor the outcome of HB 110, “and will move forward as appropriate,” he wrote.

Under a merger, Kent would be given a seat on the Portage County Board of Health, joining other cities in the county: Aurora, Ravenna and Streetsboro.

State legislators proposed centralization because they may not have agreed with decisions that local health departments were making, he said. 

“I don’t think they liked the fact that the cities had their own health departments,” Sidoti said. “But we are blessed in the City of Kent with a high-functioning health department. How could you not want to keep your health department?”

Mergers are nothing new, and several health departments have merged as they saw it would be beneficial, Seidel said.

But, “bigger doesn’t always mean better,” Seidel said. 

Councilman Jack Amrhein echoed her concerns.

“It would be a tragedy if we had to merge,” he said. “How do you merge when you have almost 30,000 residents and 20,000 students? I don’t understand it.”

Kent’s health department is a few months away from full accreditation.

“If we’re swallowed up by another health department, what was all that hard work for?” he asked.

Diorio points out that the county health department is already accredited and maintains comprehensive nursing, environmental and WIC services, as well as providing health education and promotion.

“Many of these services are being conducted by our agency for Kent residents continually at no cost to the residents, such as WIC, Cribs for Kids, car seats, Project Dawn, etc.” he wrote.

Project Dawn is Ohio’s network of opioid education and naloxone distribution programs.

Amrhein, the city council’s representative on the Kent Board of Health, said the resolution is not meant to disparage the Portage County health department. He called HB 110 a political move that may have legal repercussions. Kent’s health department is stipulated in Kent’s City Charter, and Kent has home rule, he said.

Finances are another question: Kent residents are not asked to support the health department with tax levies as county residents are, he said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Kent City Council also:

  • Approved outdoor patio space at 211 Franklin Ave., a multi-use building currently under construction at the southeast corner of Erie and Franklin.
  • Authorized the installation of a pitched roof on the West Main Fire Station, ending months of debate over whether to maintain the historical character of the building. The fire station was originally designed with a flat roof, but council agreed with council member John Kuhar’s assessment that, “It has historical significance, but not great historical significance.”
  • Accepted four donations and one grant totaling $3,140 for the chimney swift project.
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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.