• John McGary, Woodford Sun Editor

St. Leo priest leaves due to immigration issue

Unless the General Assembly and Gov. Matt Bevin can agree on a fix, the Woodford County Health Department will have to pay about $200,000 more for employee pensions for fiscal year 2020, which begins July 1, according to Public Health Director Cassie Prather. The health department is one of hundreds of quasis – quasi-governmental agencies – across the state facing the same problem. Prather said she’s addressed the department’s financial woes since taking over in February 2017 by not replacing employees when they retire or resign. Even before then, the department was downsizing, going from 18 full- and two part-time workers in 2010 to 10 full- and two part-time today, she said. Prather said if the one-year fix state leaders have discussed doesn’t happen, the department may have to cut back on services. “ … We do not have the funds – we’re a service organization and so we pay for people to provide services, and we don’t have the money to pay the people to provide services anymore,” she said. In recent years, the department handed off some free- or reduced-price services to local agencies, but there are some duties that state law requires health departments to perform, she said. “And the problem is we don’t have enough people to provide those services,” Prather said. “We have to inspect restaurants, hotels, schools, pools; we have to do disease investigations with TB (tuberculosis) and other communicable diseases. Those are the things that we absolutely have to do, and a lot of times there’s not money – we’re not getting funding for those except through public health tax dollars in a lot of those situations. Heaven forbid our health department or our county has some type of disaster – we’re not staffed where we can be able to respond at a level that I feel like the community deserves.” Without a fix, Prather said she’s also concerned about her ability to recruit and keep good employees, who received a raise last year, but might not this year. Cuts in state and federal aid have also been a problem, she said. She said State Rep. Joe Graviss has been very supportive on the issue. “Somebody has to pay the bill, and for years, Kentucky did not pay the bill and now it’s time to pay the piper,” Graviss said. “You can’t just keep putting this obligation on a credit card and expect it to not ever be required to be paid off. And that’s what’s happened. …” Solutions? Graviss told the Sun that he cosponsored legislation in the General Assembly that would have provided the one-year fix, and that he continues to work with people behind the scenes “quietly and professionally” to come up with alternatives. “A lot can be done about it if there’s the political will to do it. I fully support freezing … all the quasi’s rates where they’re at now, and we have been working on several proposals that the actuaries have proven get us to fully funded four years faster – at least four years faster – than Gov. Bevin’s proposal. And it does not spike the quasi rates,” Graviss said. Graviss said he’s been actively involved in the process, including taking part in meetings of the State Pension Oversight Board. For the temporary fix to occur, Bevin will have to call a special session before the end of this month. The quick fix won’t be cheap – in March, a story in the Louisville Courier-Journal put the increased pension costs for quasi-governmental agencies for next fiscal year at $38 million. Another way for the Woodford Health Department to come up with more money is for the Board of Health, which meets today, Thursday, June 13, at 5:30 p.m., to raise property taxes. Prather said the department’s taxing district has kept the rate at 2 cents (per $100 of assessed value) since the district was formed. State law allows taxing districts to increase revenues by up to 4 percent without a recall election. That means if the Board of Health took the 4 percent hike, that rate could increase up to a maximum of 2.08 cents (the increase is also dependent on property valuations, which generally increase over time). Prather said Woodford County’s taxing district rate is the lowest in the region. Prather said she’d submit a balanced budget at the Board of Health meeting that doesn’t take into account the possible short-term fix. For now, Prather, Graviss and thousands of people across Kentucky with a stake in the matter are waiting to see if Bevin will call a special session, and if he does, what will become of it. “I don’t know if that will happen. If it doesn’t, we’ll just have to see what our board wants to proceed with,” Prather said. “The bottom line in this is that our community members deserve a high-functioning, well-funded health department. And that’s my goal, and that’s becoming more difficult with the funding that we have lost over the years.” Graviss said even with a multi-million dollar one-year fix, “It’s cheaper for Kentucky to keep our health department open, even at a higher pension cost, than it would be to have to provide the statutorily-required services that they provide in our community, should they go bankrupt.”

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