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Thursday, May 8th, 2008
By Shelley Grieshop
Mercer County officials teaming up with neighbors on smoking violators
  Area health departments - including those in Mercer and Auglaize counties - may jointly hire someone to handle complaint and enforcement of Ohio's smoking ban.
The Grand Lake-area counties hope to work with officials in Van Wert and Allen counties to hire a "smoking inspector" to investigate complaints and handle the prosecution process of the smoke-free workplace act passed by voters in November 2006.
Dale Palmer, newly-hired administrator for the Mercer County-Celina City Health Board, told board members meeting Wednesday that sharing the cost of the position with the neighboring counties - together called the "Fab Four" - would be much easier on everyone's budget.
"It's another unfunded state mandate," Palmer said of the smoking ban law, explaining how local health departments are struggling to meet the obligation without added manpower or funding.
Currently, county Environmental Director Michelle Kimmel is handling the investigative and prosecution process but has made it secondary to other tasks including new school inspections.
The subject of handling smoking ban enforcement is expected to be discussed at a meeting of health officials from all four counties in the near future, Palmer said.
County Health Commissioner Dr. Philip Masser also expects the subject to arise at the statewide spring conference for health commissioners next week.
"Perhaps we'll get some guidance then, as well," Masser added.
Currently, 13 county/city health departments have opted out of the enforcement process and handed the duty back to the state - an option being considered by officials in Mercer and Auglaize counties.
At last month's health board meeting, Palmer said he feared that giving up the duty could lead to rampant violations locally, especially if the state is not able to keep abreast of the situation.
Mercer County officials have received a higher amount of complaints to investigate than most other departments of their size and population, according to statistics obtained through the Ohio Department of Health.
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