As the Prince William Board of County Supervisors considers budget proposals that would gut funding for the local health department, a health official is concerned of threats to public safety.
Dr. Alison Ansher, health director for the Prince William Health District, lobbied a passionate defense of her department at the Board meeting Tuesday evening—arguing that it plays a key, and perhaps underappreciated, role in promoting public safety.
"We may not be what one thinks of as classic public safety employees, and we may not wear uniforms, but clearly the health department is essential to the Board of County Supervisors' priority: public safety," Ansher said. "There are very few county agencies and no schools that we do not assist in the provision of their services."
As part of a bid to keep county taxes flat, Chairman Corey Stewart has proposed . County staff are currently studying his and other supervisors' budget proposals to determine potential effects.
"If the Board of County Supervisors cuts our budget by 91.3 percent of the county tax dollars, the health department will forfeit $2.7 million state matching dollars and the health department will not be able to protect the residents of Prince William County," Ansher said.
At last week's Board meeting, Stewart said that an expanding federal presence in health care has led to lesser need for health departments, which have traditionally provided care for those at greatest risk. Ansher pointed to a number of other functions the department provides: restaurant inspections, support during emergencies such as the Holly Acres flooding, nursing home and personal care screenings, and sewage programs that protect ground water and the Chesapeake Bay.
"As you can see, the health department does a lot more than just provide health services for indigent Prince William County residents," she concluded.
Stewart coolly inquired if she would lobby the state for funding, as well—apparently a rhetorical question, since he later noted that she was prohibited from doing so by Virginia law.
"As you know, these are things that are created by the state...before you come to us, and ask us for revenue, I'd think that you would ask the General Assembly to contribute their fair share," said Stewart.
He added: "Honestly, in my view this is a state responsibility. It was laid out that way in the beginning and as time has gone on, local taxpayers are bearing a greater share. I have no problem with any of the services provided, or with your employees, or with you, but this is a question of fair distribution of burden."
Woodbridge Supervisor Frank Principi said that he agreed the state should provide more funding, and the county should specifically ask for that in its legislative agenda.
"What I don't agree with you on, is cutting services and putting Prince William residents, the people we represent, on the street without prenatal care, without immunizations, without the fundamental public health services that every family in this community needs," Principi told Stewart.
Stewart said that the county could no longer afford to fund the department, which was once primarily paid for by the state.
"The reality is we've got to make decisions. We've got to make priorities. And for a local government, that means education, that means transportation, that means public safety. Those are the core priorities of government," he said.
Read more on the FY14 budget:
Social Services on the Chopping Block?
Shadow of Sequestration Looms Over Prince William
County Hashes Out Priorities for Upcoming Year