By Timothy Cox
Local board of health officials are worried they might have to pay for their own office space if a statewide association gets its way.
Mercer County-Celina City Board of Health members are concerned about an idea floated by the County Commissioners Association of Ohio (CCAO) that seeks a change in state law that would take counties off the hook for providing health departments office space.
The Mercer County Health Department now occupies offices at the Mercer County Central Services Building on West Livingston Street free of charge. The agency also pays no utilities.
Ohio law requires counties to provide office space, but CCAO officials are pushing for a change in that law to free up more money on the county level. Counties across the state are feeling the budget crunch caused by reductions in state funding to local governments. The cut is expected to cost Mercer County about $191,000 annually.
"It becomes a real budget issue for us if we have to pay rent for the offices we now have," Health Commissioner Dr. Philip Masser said at this week's regular board meeting. Michelle Kimmel, one of the health department's sanitarians, said department officials have been in contact with state legislators to express their concern.
If the department suddenly had to pay its own rent and utilities, health officials likely would have to hike fees for existing services or seek a tax increase from voters, she said.
Board members complained that any such change in the funding structure ultimately would be borne by taxpayers.
Mercer County Commission- ers said they have heard about the proposal only in the past few days. While they did not take a direct stand on the issue, they did say they understand where the CCAO is coming from.
"The CCAO is looking at ways to get more revenue," at the county level, Commissioner Jerry Laffin said. "It's a case of where you see what the state is trying to do with funding ,,, the CCAO is trying to get rid of some of these mandates."
Commissioners said local government funding from the state is supposed to pay for some of the things that are mandated by state law, such as office space for health departments. Without full state funding, counties must find a way to cut their budgets or raise more money.
"Our association is trying to end some of those mandates," Commissioner Jim Zehringer said.
"In recent years, the state has been shifting more costs to counties in the areas of human services, indigent defense and court and jail operations," a CCAO statement on the group's legislative priorities says. "Counties are creatures of state statute and can only act when specifically authorized by state law."