By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Commissioners discussed the possibility of merging the Planning Department with the Department of Environmental Health last week. A scenario was presented by the Planning Department that would involve both departments sharing the same physical space and both departments sharing an administrator who would have control over the budgets and other administrative matters while the departments themselves would remain separate and be run separately by a Planning Department manager and a “lead” sanitarian.
All the public comment received by e-mail and telephone was against the proposed merger. Out of a roomful of people only one spoke in favor of the merger and at least two commissioners were openly critical of the proposal. The discussion came to a dead end when no commissioner would make a motion regarding the issue.
County Planner Kevin Waller presented what he said was the outcome of a conversation between the two departments about a possible merger. He said advantages and disadvantages of a physical merger were discussed and the outcome was the proposal to place both departments downstairs in the space currently occupied by the DEH. He said the space move would not require any improvements or changes to the current space and would accommodate the present staff from both departments given the current work loads.
Waller said the plan would involve the current Planning Department Manager Terry Nelson becoming Administrator for both departments and Nelson would be in charge of budgets, employee time cards, and other administrative matters in both departments. In the Planning Department, Nelson would also have supervisory authority over the Planners and other staff because he already serves in that capacity. But a “lead” sanitarian would be selected to have that authority in the environmental health department, removing the need to hire a department Director.
“The Administrator would not oversee the DEH in a supervisory role, but just in terms of budgets, administrative procedures and time sheets,” said Waller. “He would act in an advisory role for hiring and firing and evaluations for environmental health but the ‘lead’ sanitarian would make the final decisions.”
He said that both departments would still require a full time office manager and these jobs would involve some cross training so that they could stand in for each other during absences.
Commissioner J.R. Iman stated that he did not think combining the offices physically was necessary. He also disagreed with the proposed change in management configuration.
“I don’t think we’ve demonstrated the need for a full time manager,” said Iman. “I’m in favor of having the departments run by capable personnel with pay commensurate with the work they are doing.”
Iman was critical of the idea of dividing crucial department roles. “We did this once before and there was an inherent conflict between people drawing lines on the ground and the people that have to protect the public health,” said Iman. He said it did not work out well last time and that the idea needed much more discussion.
Commission Chair Greg Chilcott said that he did not see any cost savings except in terms of not hiring a new Director for the DEH by just allowing one of the sanitarians to serve as a “leader.”
“Secondly, I don’t want to start juggling offices around,” said Chilcott. He said that right now the economy is slow and the planning department looks vacant. He said not too long ago there were 11 employees in the department and that could happen again.
“Finally, once bitten, twice shy,” said Chilcott. “We tried this once before and it created problems. It just did not go well.”
Public Health Director Judy Griffin read a letter from Public Health Officer Dr. Carol Calderwood which supported maintaining DEH as a independent department in the county.
“We believe a strong environmental health organization is always important especially in case of outbreaks and events which are threats to public health and safety,” wrote Calderwood. She said it is essential to have leaders in place with expert knowledge of environmental health.
“Many crucial functions of environmental health fall outside the scope of the Planning Department,” she wrote. She said in her opinion non-sanitarians don’t have the expertise or the perspective to make appropriate decisions for the department.
Terry Polumski, president of the Board of Realtors, said it was a great opportunity to combine services due to attrition.
“To not make a decision today because of what you think may happen in the future is, in some regards, just as irresponsible as not doing anything at all to plan for the future,” said Polumski.
Bitterroot Star publisher Michael Howell said it sounded like they were decapitating the environmental health department by removing the budget authority from the department head, and he could see no reason for it.
Kelsey Milner of Bitterrooters for Planning said that it would be a bad move in terms of public perception. He said the public was likely to think that the commissioners were creating a way to snuff environmental concerns. Others called it a step backward and wondered if any other county in the state had ever combined the departments.
Sarah Roubik said that she was shocked when she heard about the proposal.
“It’s like you didn’t learn anything from the Treasurer’s office debacle,” she said. She said in that case they put an unqualified person in charge of the office to oversee qualified personnel and they were proposing the same thing here.
“Terry Nelson is qualified in a lot of areas,” she said, “but he is not a sanitarian and you are talking about putting him in as a manager of all the qualified sanitarians. It’s exactly the same thing. You apologized for doing that in the treasurer’s office so why on earth would you do it again?” She said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and every time expecting different results.
Roubik also mentioned a letter that the commissioners had received back in January from the Board of Realtors encouraging such a merger plan.
“I feel like if they say ‘jump’, you say ‘how high?’. I think it’s time you started looking out for the people,” Roubik said. “Please don’t do this and then come back and apologize for it.”
Andy Roubik was critical of what he called “cronyism.”
Chilcott asked him to stay on topic about the discussion of merging the two departments.
Roubik said he was on topic. He said they dumbed down the job description for the Director of Planning and put Nelson, the Chairman of the Republican Central Committee, in charge of the department. Then they packed the Planning Board with their other cronies “and now this is putting your crony in charge of the Department of Environmental Health. It’s a joke.”
John and Patricia Meakin also both spoke against the merger and the need to keep DEH separate from the Planning Department. They said such a significant change to county department structure should get much more public discussion.
Commissioner Suzy Foss said that she did not know anything about the proposal to create an administrative position over both departments and was not in favor of it. She was glad that the departments got together and discussed and made their recommendations and the topic was worth discussing.
Commissioner Ron Stoltz said that he placed the matter on the agenda “because I got some calls,” but he would not say who he talked to.
“I’m offended that somebody would say that people who work as realtors are not citizens and taxpayers and don’t have an opportunity to give their side,” said Stoltz. “I think that’s one-sided.” He said with a department head leaving it was an opportunity to have a discussion.
Iman agreed that it was an appropriate time for a discussion, but reiterated his belief that the departments should be kept separate and that there was no need to have them in the same office space, either.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows said it was the first time he had heard anything about Nelson taking over the DEH budget. He said originally he had heard figures of close to $100,000 in savings by making some changes and thought that was worth discussing. He said it seemed premature to make a decision without anything in writing or any definite plan.
Chilcott reiterated that he saw no big cost savings and that the last time it was tried it didn’t work.
In the end no motion was made to do anything and no time was set for any future discussions.