Healthy, wealthy and wise in Union County

Individual health departments are becoming a rarity as communities look for shared savings

File PhotoThe Rahway Health Department is one of two regional health departments in Union County that offers its services to other local municipalities. The other is Westfield.
File Photo
The Rahway Health Department is one of two regional health departments in Union County that offers its services to other local municipalities. The other is Westfield.

There was a time when towns in Union County had their own local health departments, but those days are coming to an end. Now municipalities are looking at whether the health needs of their community can be handled just as well by a regional health department.

Increasing state-mandated services, reduced state aid, and the high cost of maintaining an in-house staff continue to put a strain on municipal budgets. Many  have opted to go with inter-local agreements with towns who created regional health departments.

Over the last decade, many municipalities have wrestled with whether maintaining home rule is worth the price they have to pay when it comes to mandated health services. Especially when regional health departments are ready to take over these mandated services for a fraction of what towns paid before. But, regional health departments also profit from the venture.

Presently there are only two Union County municipalities, Westfield and Rahway, offering the option of joining a regional health department. However, towns are not required by the state to stay within the county for these services.

Any town can contract with a municipality in any county for health services as long as they uphold the “health practice standards” required by the state.

The Westfield Regional Health Department has contracted with local municipalities for 25 years or more, presently providing full or partial state-mandated services to Cranford, Roselle Park, Fanwood, Garwood, Mountainside and Summit.

The Rahway Regional Health Department has also been providing these same services for years, presently contracting with four municipalities, including Berkeley Heights, Hillside, Scotch Plains and Winfield Park.

The option, though, always is there for towns to remain on their own, or shop around for a health department that suits their needs.

Springfield certainly proved this last fall when they decided not to renew their contract with the Westfeld Regional Health Department and join forces with the Madison Health Department in Morris County. The move, though, did not come without controversy.

The Republican controlled Springfield Township Committee moved to disband the local autonomous board of health last fall after board members sided with the Westfield Regional health officer over problems involving store inspections that were not “business friendly,” some have said.

According to Springfield Mayor David Amlen, steps already have been taken to bring back the autonomous board by the end of January, but the township fully intends to continue the inter-local agreement they have with Madison for health department services.

By changing regional health departments the township saved $30,000, according to the mayor. However, LocalSource was unable to obtain the exact cost of the contract by press time from either Springfield or Madison.

Money saving has become important to many towns, especially since municipalities have a state-mandated 2 percent cap when it comes to budget increases.

There was a time when health departments counted on receiving state public health priority funding if their town had a population over 25,000. This was a financial safety net for municipalities because a town with 25,000 people received around $10,000 a year in funding while towns with a higher number of residents received considerably more.

But that windfall dried up several years ago, leaving local health departments struggling to provide state mandated health services to their communities with bare bones budgets. Every municipality is required by law to have licensed health officer coverage, whether it is on site or provided by a regional health department, and it can be a financial drain for some municipalities. Especially those that are smaller.

With health officer salaries ranging anywhere from $79,000 to $120,000 or more and the cost of  maintaining a support staff, the option of forging an inter-local agreement with a regional health department has become not just a viable option but a necessity.

Towns, like Hillside, for instance, while still maintaining their own food store inspector and office staff, contract for health officer coverage. Regional health departments charge various amounts for health officer coverage depending on the size of the municipality.

Hillside, who contracts with the Rahway Regional Health Department, pays $18,000 annually for this coverage, while other municipalities, like tiny Winfield Park, pay $8,550 a year for this and other coverage from Rahway.

Other towns, like Clark, have a health officer who also inspects food establishments and handles a bevy of mandated services for the township

But Cranford, for instance, took advantage of outsourcing health services after their long time health officer left in 2011.  The township entered into an inter-local contract with Westfield for health officer services as well as other health related mandated services.

Cranford still maintains a food store inspector and support staff on site, which can substantially reduce the cost of  paying for health-related services. The only difference is the Westfield health officer runs the health department and makes all decisions regarding the health of the community.

Towns like Elizabeth, Union, Linden, Plainfield, Clark and Roselle still have their own health officers along with fully staffed health departments. Except for Linden, which handles animal control services for several municipalities, these towns have expressed little interest in becoming part of a regional health department.

While inter-local agreements made with regional health departments are mutually beneficial and not legally part of the competitive bidding process, LocalSource had different responses when trying to find out what Westfield and Rahway charge Union County towns for this service.

The Rahway Health Department responded the same day to the OPRA request and supplied all contractual amounts, but it was seven days before Westfield responded and the contract amount was redacted.

Although contracts for inter-local agreements fall under the Open Public Records Act and should be readily available within the required seven business day waiting period, lawyers representing Westfield explained that these contracts are outside the OPRA law.

In a letter dated Dec. 19, Finestein & Malloy, LLC, attorneys for Westfield, said they blacked out the contract amounts  because under the OPRA law, “the information which, if disclosed, would give an advantage to competitors or bidders.”

According to the New Jersey Press Association legal representatives, because there was no competitive bidding involved and the contracts were entered into as a “mutually beneficial” arrangement, Westfield’s legal opinion was not applicable in this particular case.

“Because a municipality is choosing to enter these contracts for services and did not go out to bid, this eliminates any competitive edge,” said an attorney for the press association Lauren James-Weir, speaking on behalf of the New Jersey Press Association.

She also explained that once a governing body approved a resolution for an inter-local agreement, it is considered a public record and obtainable under OPRA law.

Complicating this matter even further was the fact that the information, although blacked out, was clearly visible for all the towns, except Cranford. At issue was whether LocalSource could legally use the information even though it had been redacted.

“Absolutely,” James-Weir said, explaining that because the requested information had been obtained legally by LocalSource, the newspaper was under no obligation to omit these numbers from an article.

“It is your first amendment right as a newspaper to publish that information,” the attorney added.

The inter-local agreements Westfield made with the six towns they contracted for  all provided about the same services, except for Roselle Park, which paid more than double the other towns.

All of the contracts automatically renewed for two additional years with a 2 percent increase included to cover contractually binding salary increases for Westfield Health Department employees.

Each clearly stipulated, though, that the Westfield Health officer would oversee  township health department personnel in order to carry out core activities vital to the health of the community. The health officer  was also required to attend local board of health meetings and provide inspection and other health-related reports to the board of health in each municipality.

Roselle Park paid the most for “full” health services at $125,886 a year, but this also included food store and restaurant inspections by the Westfield inspectors as well as nursing services, which are all mandated by the state.

Summit, which has their own inspectors, is the second highest paying town at $59,299 for health officer and other health related services that are not clearly defined. Garwood paid $44,386, Fanwood paid $40,054, and Mountainside $35,251 .

Cranford’s contracted numbers were not able to be seen and although an OPRA request was sent to this municipality requesting the amount paid for health services, this information was not received by press time.

The inter-local agreements made by Rahway were similar to Westfield, but also included information particular to each  town’s needs.

Berkeley Heights, for instance, will pay $67,125 for the first year of a contract that begins this year, with an increase of 2 percent the second year of the two year contract.

Rahway provides this town with  “health services of a technical and professional nature.” This includes food store and restaurant inspections and health officer coverage. Written reports and attendance at board of health meetings by the Rahway health officer were written into the contract.

Hillside, as previously mentioned, pays $18,300 for health officer coverage, with a 3 percent annual increase thereafter. This contract is in effect through 2014.

Scotch Plains pays Rahway $66,655 a year for all health department services, including food store and restaurant inspections. This contract is for periods of one year through Dec. 2014, unless canceled by either party.

Winfield, as previously noted, receives health officer and other health-related services for $8,550 a year, but oversees an inspector paid by Winfield Park.