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County health agency plans cuts

Public health services in Island County will suffer when the budget axe falls in 2003, though Health Director Tim McDonald said Thursday his department is seeking to minimize immediate effects.

At the request of the county commissioners, McDonald has drawn up a proposal to enact the 11 percent across-the-board cuts expected to hit county departments.

Under McDonald's preliminary proposal, the divisions of environmental health and nursing and personal health would be the hardest hit, losing about $19,000 and $45,000 respectively.

McDonald warned that, compared to this year's $33,000 in cuts, the loss of funding expected in the coming years definitely will translate into decreased services to the public at large.

"We're past the easy cuts," McDonald said. "We'll do the best we can, and look at cuts that do the most good for the most people. There will be impacts, though."

The health department expects to lose almost $65,000 in county funding next year, which McDonald called "a relatively trivial amount of money" compared to the heavy cuts that are certain to come at the state level. Perhaps the most dreaded loss of state revenue would be the expected removal of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax replacement funds, which amount to a loss of $76,701 for the county's nursing services.

Other state grants in jeopardy are $22,188 for Child Protective Services, $20,000 for Alcohol Treatment Services and $200,000 for Developmental Disabilities Services, which is almost half its budget.

"The state and county have a very fixed and decreasing capacity to raise revenue," McDonald said, "and, on the other hand, an increasing set of needs and demands."

He said legislative changes in the way health departments are funded have left counties without any way of generating revenue for public services. Because cities no longer contract with Island County for health services, "counties are totally left holding the public health funding bag," he said.

Recent initiatives such as I-695 and I-747 have removed taxing authority, and with the loss of so-called I-695 or MVET backfill money, the legislature "has put counties in a real pickle," McDonald said.

According to McDonald, Island County in particular is faced with big budget problems due to its situation as a rural region of rapid population growth.

Because the health department is mandated to serve the public at large in the areas of providing, for example, clean water and food and response to outbreaks of communicable diseases, cuts in service are bound to impact everyone. However, McDonald said, the economic realities of decreasing government services conceivably will have more severe effect among the poor, who might not be able to afford such things as immunization.

"Some of these lost services are going to hit those with low incomes harder," he said. "If you're wealthy, you just buy the service from someone else."

This in turn "pokes a hole in the concept of population service," McDonald added, in that anyone who can't afford to get inoculated against an outbreak of a particular illness puts everyone at risk.

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