NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk tax board members turned a skeptical eye Monday to a plea from the Norwalk Department of Health, citing the difficulty of making cuts in this tough budget year even if they agreed that a key position is worth keeping.
A program coordinator is essential, Department of Health Director Tim Callahan told Board of Estimate and Taxation members, explaining that he feared the state would take away its funding for the position. It’s especially important given the department’s proximity to the cutting edge of national accreditation, he said. But Finance Director Thomas Hamilton said it doesn’t pay to guess what the state will do, and BET member Erik Anderson said that, with $500,000 worth of cuts to make to the next operating budget, he just couldn’t see taking the position off the health department’s grant budget and putting it onto the city’s budget.
“We are at the beginning of something very dramatic in the field of public health,” Callahan said during the BET budget workshop. “For the first time there are standards that have been set for health departments to meet. The standards are set up with the best available knowledge with a group of services that we ought to be providing or be involved in that should result in delivery services appropriate for the population.”
National public health department accreditation launched in 2011, according to the Public Health Department Accreditation Board.
Norwalk is on its way to being the first public health department in Connecticut to be accredited, he said. If the department is accredited it is eligible for grants, he said. A program coordinator is needed to maintain the accreditation if it’s attained, and the state is beginning to monkey around with the grant that funds the position, he said.
Hamilton said Norwalk has been getting that grant for 30 years, he said.
“The governor has not proposed the elimination of that program in his budget that I am aware of and I believe that I looked,” Hamilton said. “We don’t assume that, because some legislators or the director of health is looking for some future change, we don’t generally make a decision on the basis of that kind of speculation because we would be making all kinds of changes to the budget all over the place. … It’s very hard to eliminate a grant program in an election year to municipalities that municipalities have been receiving for 30 years. I think it’s unlikely that this grant program is going to be eliminated.”
“I’ve been doing this for kind of a long time and I usually have a good feel when things are happening,” Callahan said. “My gut is telling me that this is going to go in the wrong direction for us.”
“There’s always the option at some point to talk about a special appropriation, but I think it’s premature at this point to fund a position where you’ve already got grant funding for it, until you know that that grant funding is getting pulled away,” Hamilton cautioned.
Anderson appeared to be siding with Hamilton, though no decision was reached during the workshop, part of the BET’s beginning phase of wrestling with the budget.
He said the proposal had jumped out at him and he had researched the position.
“This is something that we need,” he said. “There is no ifs, ands or buts about it in my opinion personally. But right now it is funded. That’s kind of my difficulty with it when I was looking at it to say ‘how can we take on the full burden of this position’ without absolutely having to do so when we are already looking at so many other instances where we are fighting to cut corners and trim and do the best that we can to get the workforce and the benefit from these employees? And then there’s this?”
The Common Council last week set a budget cap that is $500,000 lower than Hamilton’s recommended 2014-15 operating budget.
“We are in a very tight year,” Anderson said. “We already now have an additional $500,000 we’re going to have to cut. This is a position that, as far as we know,, is fully funded. It’s just very hard for me to look at this and say let’s through it in here.”
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