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BOH compares Westfield and Madison health departments

By: - Staff Writer

File Photo
The Springfield Board of Health recently compared the services and cost of the Madison and Westfield regional health department.

SPRINGFIELD— The Board of Health is delving into the differences between Westfield and Madison’s respective Health Department services as they contemplate which municipality to partner with in 2013.

The township has contracted its health department services to Westfield for more than 15 years, but at last month’s Board of Health meeting, Madison officials promised their health department can meet or exceed the services presently offered by Westfield for 2013 by about $35,000 less. The Madison contract for 2013 was cited at $97,000 to Westfield’s $137,487.

Each health department had different strengths that their respective representatives focused on. Madison Assistant Administrator Jim Burnet and recently-hired Health Officer Lisa Gulla described the community education services Madison offered.

“Our strength lies in our health education services,” Burnet said. “In the long run, it does have a big impact on public health.”

Westfield Health Officer Megan Avallone stressed her department’s large staff and quick reaction time. The Westfield Health Department offers Springfield one full-time health inspector with five backup health inspectors who can respond to calls after-hours.

“You will never get a call at3 a.m.because no one from the health department is responding,” Avallone told the board members.

Avallone said she and her staff have become very well-adjusted to Springfield’s needs during their many years working for the township.

“Residents trust our service. They’ve had it a long time and they know us,” Avallone said.

Board of Health President and Township Committee member Marc Krauss compared Westfield’s proposal to corresponding data provided by Madison, concluding that apart from cost, the two proposals were essentially identical.

“They’re both providing the same thing,” Krauss said.

Some of Krauss’s fellow board members indicated they never saw the data from Madison that was being used to make the comparison.

“If I’m going to make an informed decision I’d like to see that for myself,” said Board member and Township Committee member David Amlin said.

The former autonomous Board of Health opposed changing Health Departments, which was dissolved earlier this year amid heavy public outcry. The duties of the Board of Health are now filled by the Township Committee, two members of the public and two alternates.

Former Board of Health President Samir Shah offered input during the public portion of the meeting. Shah said the former board was discouraged from examining shared services with Madison because information on their website regarding per-resident costs suggested savings without a significant drop in services could not be obtained, and because the borough’s health officer had their license suspended.

Shah said while the two proposals now being reviewed may look the same on paper, the weaknesses in a cheaper service often become evident in circumstances when the township needs them most.

“With cost reductions, the time you really see them are during emergencies,” Shah said. “You don’t see them on a day-to-day basis.”

Some board members said any decision they make should take into account how Madison’s service would measure up during a disaster like the flooding experienced in Springfield last summer during Tropical Storm Irene.

However, Mayor Ziad Shehady dismissed the topic of flood response as a “hypothetical.”

“They’re both going to say what we want them to say but we won’t know how they will really react,” Shehady said. “We don’t know Westfield is going to guarantee the happy fairy tale ending we want.”

Amlin disagreed, saying Westfield’s service during Tropical Storm Irene was exemplary, and serves as a baseline for what the township should aim for in the future.

“We do know because it already happened and Westfield did very well,” Amlin said.

Board member Shane Ronan spoke up to disagree, stating that in his estimation Westfield’s service during the flooding was inadequate.

Councilman and Deputy Mayor Jerry Fernandez, however, said he was in constant contact with Avallone during and following the storm.

Some local officials, attending only their second meeting as Board of Health members, found it difficult to make an assessment of the services being offered and repeatedly put discussion on hold to ask for clarification and definition of the positions, regulations and services they were attempting to compare.

Board of Health member Leonard Bielory said he would like to have more health-related statistics available from other towns.

“I don’t have enough data to make an informed decision,” Bielory said.

Bielory stressed the importance of making sure residents do not see a decrease in health department coverage.

“The safety net has to catch everyone. It has to be equal,” Bielory said.

Krauss agreed further comparison is needed.

“We will go back and do a little more due diligence,” Krauss said. “We need a little clarification on both sides.”

The next meeting of the Springfield Board of Health is scheduled for Nov. 14.

Paul Greulich can be reached at 908-686-7700 ext. 121, or at thelocalsource@gmail.com.