Board Faces Heated Criticism from Public, Officials
All five members of the Geauga Public Health Board approved a Cross Jurisdictional Cooperative Agreement with the Lake County General Health District during a special meeting March 15 — and announced simultaneously the termination of a majority of GPH employees effective March 31.
The special meeting, held at 4 p.m. — three hours before the annual meeting of the Health District Advisory Council — was announced March 10. A draft of the agreement first became available to the public March 14, but included neither dates nor a timeline for a shift to a LCGHD-staffed department.
Employees, several of whom lined the back of the meeting room on the third floor of the county administration building, found out their termination date at the same time as the public.
Board members Carolyn Brakey and Lynn Roman took credit for negotiating the deal over the last few months, since LCGHD announced late last year they were no longer willing to share Administrator Adam Litke and Environmental Health Director Dan Lark with GPH.
“Under this agreement, we estimate we will save Geauga residents between $350,000 and $600,000 a year in health services costs,” Brakey said. “We will continue to maintain our vehicles, our office, our website and our identity.”
Since November, Roman and Brakey have provided periodic updates to the board about plans to replace Litke with a new administrator, as well as discussions with LCGHD Commissioner Ron Graham.
“We had another meeting this week, Lynn and I, with Ron Graham. One thing that came up was some discussion regarding programs we may be able to create, additional services to the community, if we partner with Lake that would have no additional cost to (GPH),” Brakey told the board Feb. 2.
However, none of those reports contained details of the agreement, which Roman and Brakey said were being considered by the full board for the first time March 15.
Both Roman and Brakey raised the specter of looming budget shortfalls, although records obtained from the Geauga County Auditor’s Office show GPH had a year-end general fund balance of $2,713,235, with a carryover of $1,824,759 — a budget totaling at $4,537,994.
Another report from the auditor’s office shows a 2022 GPH budget report indicated expenses exceeded revenues by about $44,000 for all funds combined and that GPH projects a shortfall of roughly $450,000 in its 2023 budget.
Questions sent to the GPH board, Interim Administrator Adam Litke and the board’s attorney, Bryan Kostura, were answered by Kostura only, who was hired as outside counsel and whose firm was paid a total of $169,562, spread across 25 payments, between April and December 2022.
In response to a public records request for information related to the GPH budget shortfalls, Kostura provided a chart showing revenues and expenditures for the health district. The chart did not provide dates or indicate whether some funds would be later replenished by grants or other sources of funding.
“At this point, all public statements about the agreement will be limited to the news release, which as you know was previously distributed, the agreement itself and the FAQ, which recently was added to the GPH website,” Kostura answered when asked to clarify further details regarding the financial situation of the health district prior to the agreement.
At the meeting March 15, Brakey said annual deficits are likely to rise, meaning the GPH board has a “fiduciary duty” to address a potential shortfall now. Although the board voted Jan. 19 not to put its levy on the May ballot for renewal, Brakey said the board owes it to residents to explore the most cost-efficient path forward.
“It’s important to emphasize that we are not broke, we maintain a healthy reserve or ‘rainy day fund,’ but we can’t rely on that,” Brakey said.
Roman said one of the biggest difficulties the board faced was finding qualified candidates for the administrator position. Adam Litke was named GPH interim administrator after the August 2021 firing of Health Commissioner Tom Quade over public posts on his personal Facebook page. Litke was handed the official administrator role in March 2022, but LCGHD announced they wanted to end his contract with GPH in December 2022.
“As I stated earlier, the last time we needed to look for a health commissioner, there were no qualified candidates,” Roman told the board. “This time, we had 20-some applicants (and) we only interviewed four people. And … they’re not as skilled as some of the people we have in the workforce right now.”
“We are using Lake County as staffing agency,” Brakey said of the agreement.
All GPH employees not currently working in the Vital Statistics Program will be laid off.
“The reason for this decision was that the Vital Statistics employees have a deep institutional knowledge and are best equipped to handle the tight controls the state places on these confidential records,” the board’s attorney, Bryan Kostura, said in an email to the Geauga Maple Leaf. “Moreover, contracting this department to Lake would not result in cost savings, which is the primary purpose for the institution of the Cross Jurisdictional Agreement.”
The board said except for some roles Lake County will not be duplicating, GPH employees will be allowed to re-apply for their jobs through LCGHD.
“(GPH employees) would be able to apply for employment with Lake to supply those staffing services, but no one’s guaranteed a position,” said Brakey who, along with board member Lynn Roman, worked out the agreement over the past several months. “We have worked diligently to find the best solution, but I’m sure the employees would have preferred a quicker timeline over months of uncertainty.”
The draft agreement states LCGHD reserves the right to review and confirm the eligibility of employees to be hired for equivalent positions at its sole discretion.
“All employees shall be subject to a background check and verification of their licensing and registration credentials as required and defined by the state or federal requirements,” the agreement says.
While presenting details of the agreement early in the meeting, Brakey said the board recommended severance packages, which would be discussed with employees. However, about an hour and 15 minutes into the meeting, Roman said employees would be given two weeks of severance pay, as well as their accumulated vacation time.
Several GPH employees spoke before the board. Click through to read their comments, or click here to view a full-page version.
Before the final vote took place, a crowd made up of several township trustees that serve on the GCHDAC — which, hours later, would move to remove Piraino from his seat on the GPH board — near-unanimously expressed reactions from incredulity to outrage over the plan.
Jim Mueller, Russell Township trustee and former Geauga County commissioner and state representative, told the board Geauga County is one of the healthiest and wealthiest in the state.
“How the hell do you give up having a health district for money,” Mueller asked the board. “We’re wealthy enough to be able to afford this. And we should have our own health district. I think it’s sad that a county like ours has to find ourselves in a situation where we have to crawl on our hands and knees to Lake County. And that’s what I view it as.”
Related: HDAC Ousts Piraino Hours After ‘Bombshell’ GPH Agreement
Chardon Township Trustee Mike Brown was vocal in his opposition to the plan. Brown also serves as GCHDAC secretary and said he was surprised to see the special meeting held during the day when most people are not able to come — and with the board’s intent to not only introduce but pass the plan on the same day.
“I don’t understand how you think that that would pass the smell test for anybody in Geauga County. Geauga County citizens respect their sovereignty. They know that they’re from Geauga County, we don’t really have a whole lot in common with Lake County,” Brown said. “The icing on the cake is you’re going to get rid of all of the employees and you speak about it as if it’s already happened. This item is listed in the old business on your agenda. Was it ever in new business? Was it discussed in public meetings?”
Brown said the board never approached townships for a subdivision assessment, which under Ohio law is a mechanism used to fund health districts.
“I mean, try a levy, go to the townships, there’s other options before — this is, you’re going right to the death punch, as far as I’m concerned,” Brown said.
Chris Alusheff, of Aquilla Village, said while there may be some good aspects to the agreement, that does not negate what he called an “unacceptable lack of transparency” by the board, and the lack of self-awareness when confronted with disagreement from the public.
“I suggested forming a committee of community stakeholders to allow input while still having the board retain full control of any final agreement. I saw this reaction from the public coming. For some reason, you guys did not and that troubles me,” he said.
Munson Township Trustee Jim McCaskey said the vote was rushed and should be pushed back a month to allow the public to review it and weigh in.
He is not against shared services, he said, pointing out his township shares some equipment with Chardon Township.
McCaskey said if GPH had approached townships for an assessment to cover the potential $500,000 shortfall Brakey and Roman referenced, that would add up to only $30,000 from each of the county’s 16 townships.
“Would I like to get that bill, no. But would I be willing to pay to keep our personal identity? Yes. I’d find $30,000 somewhere from Munson Township,” he said.
McCaskey also called the board out for its treatment of GPH employees.
“I think that is a total disservice to our employees, to give them a 16-day notice that they’ve got to reapply for a job that some of them have had for I don’t know how many years,” he said.
Catherine Whitright, who served on the GPH board through the COVID pandemic, wondered whether the board realized employees and the public had no idea the extent or timeline of the agreement with LCGHD.
“I’m really proud of the county,” she said. “I was at the (Geauga County) Board of Elections for 27 and a half years and we were considered the best everywhere. Every department was considered the best. Now, all of a sudden, we can’t even pay our bills? And we don’t do what’s available like (ask) the trustees? I hope you guys really think about what you’re doing. It’s very discouraging.”
The GPH board attempted to regain control of the room after the public comments section, but continued to be interrupted as members of the audience reacted emotionally or shouted out questions. Brakey attempted to answer some of the questions that had been raised.
“There was a question about, why didn’t you put a levy on the upcoming ballot or why didn’t you assess the townships. To that I would say, because it was not necessary,” Brakey said. “We have an opportunity to save money without cutting services. It would be breaking our fiduciary duty not to pursue that. And I’m personally not interested in just propping up unneeded bureacracy.”
Brakey reiterated conversations about the plan — which did not include financial details, a timeline or scope of the agreement — were had by the board and reported in local newspapers.
“I understand it may be new to some people in the room, but we’ve been having board meetings with public comment since November. Sometimes, at least monthly, sometimes weekly,” she said “We’ve had extensive discussion already. And in terms of the employees, I think the timeline is probably too long, not too short.”
Laughter spread around the room in response to Brakey’s comments, which came after multiple employees expressed distress over the announcement of their two-week notice of termination.
“Let’s get some self-awareness, people,” Brown said from his seat in the audience.
Piraino, agitated with the response from the audience, said the public has a misunderstanding of the agreement. In response to questions regarding which board would have local authority, Piraino had earlier clarified the GPH board would not disband.
“I don’t know if anybody read the contract, but I can tell you that I counted at least, at least, I believe, 10 times, it clearly states in there, Geauga Public Health makes the decisions,” he said. “(Lake is) offering us contract services for employees.”
Piraino added he has received phone calls from elected officials who said the department has never run as well as it has with Litke and Lark at the helm.
“And some of the staff may not like that and that’s okay, but, you know, that staff, some of them have been there a long time, okay? But, you know, we are dedicated as a board to move this county, to move this department forward,” he said. “We’re not going broke. We have seen the writing on the wall of where the, you know, where the excessive costs are, and in a few years, I mean, we could survive a few years. Sure, we have … money in reserves. We’re trying to be proactive and to stop the bleeding.”
Addressing Brown, Piraino said Chardon Township shares a chip and seal machine with Concord Township, in Lake County.
“Are you correlating a piece of equipment with the human capital that we’ve built up over 150 years?” Brown asked. “Come on, Rich. That’s weak.”
A public records request for all conversations regarding the agreement, including discussion between board members of the March 31 termination date, was sent to the board, Litke and Kostura. Kostura said those communications did not fall under public record laws, citing a 1991 case between Sun Newspapers and the Westlake Board of Education.