Local leaders oppose legislation that could eliminate Kent City Health Department

Kent City Council and state Rep. Gail Pavliga are taking action to oppose a section of Ohio’s 2022-2023 budget bill (HB 110) that could threaten the future of the Kent City Health Department.

A provision in the bill would require small city health departments serving a population of fewer than 50,000 to complete a study to determine if they are efficient and effective enough to operate on their own, apart from their county counterparts. If passed, the law would mandate the Kent health department to merge with the Portage County Health District if it doesn’t measure up against the study criteria.

While the city of Kent already conducts self-audits of its health department to maintain its national accreditation, the criteria for this study would be developed by Ohio’s Director of Health and Auditor of State.

HB 110 would allot up to $6 million for the study of 19 city health departments across the state, including Alliance, Ashtabula, Salem and Warren. Currently, the state contributes $10,000 per year toward the operation of the Kent City Health Department.

An original budget amendment would have stipulated the outright merger of city health departments with their respective county health departments, but house legislators ended up with a compromise on the current study provision.

Pavliga said in a statement to The Portager that she and several other representatives “have made the bipartisan decision to send a letter to the Senate that strikes the study provision from the state budget altogether.” 

She said she understands the importance and the effectiveness of the Kent City Health Department and has noted that “the cost of the study outweighs the costs that the state spends on these health departments.” 

“I will closely continue monitoring this issue as it progresses within the Senate budget discussions in the coming weeks, and I hope they take the initiative to remove the provision pertaining to this costly study of merging our local health departments — entities that our citizens depend on for their health and well-being on a daily basis,” Pavliga said. 

On Wednesday, Kent City Council will vote on a resolution that demands legislators strike from the state budget any language that could feasibly dissolve the city’s health department. 

The resolution states that a merger would deprive the community of valuable and necessary services, including those the health department provided during the pandemic: contact tracing, investigating complaints and advising schools and businesses.  

By abolishing the Kent City Health Department and others like it, the resolution states, the state of Ohio would be giving “greater control and authority to a centralized government in Columbus without regards to local needs.”  

“The resolution is really just an opinion and a plea, more or less,” said Ward 4 Council Member John Kuhar, who hasn’t yet decided how he will vote on the resolution. If it passes, the city council will be able to mail letters to local representatives and the governor to say their constituents are not in favor of it, he said.

If the health department is required to merge with the county, Kuhar anticipates residents could lose the convenience the city health district provides.

“I don’t know how well the county is run or if that’s going to burden them with too much of a load. It would have to have some effect on their productivity if they’re getting an extra 20,000 or more people dumped on them,” he said.

Portage County Health Commissioner Joseph Diorio said it’s still too early to predict what will happen with the bill. The senate could decide to amend the language of the provision or eliminate it altogether. 

The health department is closely following the bill because it would impact their agency, but his staff hasn’t been called on to provide testimony one way or another, in favor or in opposition.

Should the state require a merger, Diorio anticipates that Kent would enter into the same kind of arrangement the county health district has with Aurora, Streetsboro and Ravenna, where the county provides all public health services for those cities. One representative from each city sits on the county health district’s board.

The county health district would likely have a dialogue with the city to determine what services they could provide and what services the city would have to retain, Diorio said. For instance, Kent City Health Department provides environmental services that fall outside the scope of what the county is able to offer. Because the county health district passed a five-year levy in 2018, it would be imposed on Kent city taxpayers as well.

The Ohio House of Representatives passed HB 110 on April 21. The senate will review the bill in the coming weeks and must approve it by June 30. 

Kent City Health Commissioner Joan Seidel and Mayor Jerry Fiala did not return calls requesting comment. 

The following is Pavliga’s full statement: 

Outside of the provision on this issue, the overwhelming parts of this state budget bill are comprehensive and lays out the priorities of investments for Ohio. The original budget amendment regarding city health departments was going to merge them with their respective county health departments. Fortunately, that was compromised to the current study provision. However, since then, several of us representatives — myself included — have made the bipartisan decision to send a letter to the Senate that strikes the study provision from the state budget all together. 

I understand the importance and effectiveness of our city health departments within the region, especially that of the Kent City Health Department. Additionally, to note, the cost of the study outweighs the costs that the state spends on these health departments. I will closely continue monitoring this issue as it progresses within the Senate budget discussions in the coming weeks and I hope they take the initiative to remove the provision pertaining to this costly study of merging our local health departments — entities that our citizens depend on for their health and well-being on a daily basis.