OTTAWA COUNTY, MI – Pre-pandemic programs such as food assistance, substance abuse and suicide prevention could be gone soon as the Ottawa County board seeks cuts to the health department’s upcoming budget.
The potential cuts were a main focus of concern from health department officials and several commissioners during two Ottawa County Board of Commissioners committee meetings on Tuesday, Sept. 19.
Ottawa County Administrator John Gibbs has proposed a 48% reduction of the Ottawa County Department of Public Health’s health education and nutrition wellness budget in the upcoming fiscal year.
The fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, would see this budget go from a requested $814,324 to $421,090, which raised questions about which programs under that budget will be axed.
“Essentially, I’m wondering as the manager how then do we say suicide prevention is or isn’t more important than food access,” Lisa Uganski, the county health department’s health planning and promotion manager, asked the county board Tuesday.
“Or substance use prevention is or isn’t more important than making sure people have access to education about what might be causing chronic diseases,” Uganski added. “What might be causing communicable diseases in the community?”
Gibbs said one of the programs he would cut from that budget is giving out “condoms for cupcakes” at Grand Valley State University.
“I’m thinking of more cutting giving out condoms for cupcakes at GVSU or teaching bartenders how to say ‘no’ to a drunk customer, which was literally explained just now,” Gibbs said. “I’m not sure the taxpayers of Ottawa County will be happy with their money being spent on such things and I’m sure, commissioner (Jacob) Bonnema, you might agree with that.”
Gibbs was likely, and mistakenly, referring to a Feb. 8 student event at GVSU called “Kinky Karaoke & Cupcakes” that featured sex-related songs and condom cupcakes.
That event was part of sex education week at the university. The county health department’s involvement in sex education week was limited to sexually transmitted infection testing and providing condoms to young adults who sought them, health department officials previously said.
It was not immediately clear if giving out condoms falls under the department’s health education and nutrition wellness budget.
The health department’s health education and nutrition wellness budget finances multiple programs such as suicide prevention efforts, substance use disorder prevention services, food safety classes for restaurants and programs around fitness and nutrition.
It also funds the department’s involvement in Healthy Ottawa, a collaboration with local hospitals and healthcare organizations, and a full-time coordinator for Ottawa Food, which is a collaboration aimed at ensuring community members have access to healthy, local and affordable food.
Among other initiatives, Ottawa Food this year has gleaned 22,000 pounds of food from local farmers markets and received more than 2,100 of fresh produce to distribute through local agencies to households in the county with food insecurity.
The possibility of cuts to Ottawa Food was a main concern among several commissioners.
“My concern is with the Ottawa Food,” said county commissioner Rebekah Curran. “Especially with inflation being so high, the cost of food being absolutely outrageous – clearly this is going to be a need in our community. And I, for one, want to make sure that we do have a coordinator in place to help with that program, even if that’s where the funding goes.”
Gibbs reiterated multiple times Tuesday that the proposed halving of the budget wouldn’t necessarily mean cuts to Ottawa Food, saying “no decisions have been made.”
He called any cuts necessitated by the budget reduction a “programmatic decision” that can be made after Oct. 1, but never outlined who would make those decisions or when.
The proposed cuts to the health department’s health education and nutrition wellness budget stem from a larger attempt by the county administration to reduce the department’s budget back to pre-COVID levels of spending.
That direction came from Ottawa County Board Chair Joe Moss, the leader of the ultra-conservative majority faction on the board called Ottawa Impact that has targeted a significant reduction in health department funding since taking power in January.
Initially, Gibbs required the health department to propose a budget with cuts so steep that department leaders said it would’ve closed the department and forced the state to intervene. Gibbs later walked back the severity of cuts.
Moss pushed back on characterizations that the reduced funding could jeopardize the county’s involvement in Ottawa Food and that there were cuts being made.
He said the health department’s budget is the second-highest in 15 years and that health department leadership can use those funds as they see fit to allocate to programs. The proposed overall budget for the department is lower than in 2023 and 2022.
Ottawa County Commissioner Doug Zlystra repeatedly interrupted Moss, saying “we are making cuts.”
“You’re going to have $367,000 less to spend. If it goes through, if this budget goes through: I wish you the best of luck trying to provide services at $3–,” Zlystra said, before then being cut off by Cosby.
Marcia Mansaray, deputy health officer of the county health department, asked if the department would be able to move general fund dollars around within its budget – a move that could potentially negate the cuts to the health education and nutrition wellness budget.
Gibbs said he didn’t believe the department could do so, and that it would need to be reviewed.
Zlystra proposed a the department receive the full amount of general fund dollars they initially sought, but the motion failed.
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