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Referendum asks tax increase to fund county public health services

Referendum asks voters for tax increase to fund services

Declines in state and federal grant funding have taken a toll on the DeKalb County Health Department, Director Lisa Gonzalez said.

Grant funding, which accounts for 40 percent of the department’s budget, has decreased by 18 percent since 2008. Taxes currently account for 23 percent of the department’s budget, while fees make up 36 percent. As a result of decreased grant funding, the department has reduced its workforce by 24 percent since 2010 and eliminated or reduced several programs and services, Gonzalez said.

Well child clinics have been eliminated, while HIV/sexual disease prevention services, family case management programs, and programs to prevent heart disease, cancer and diabetes are offered at a reduced capacity, she said.

“We had H1N1 back in 2009, or really [with] any communicable disease outbreak that we would have to respond to, we’re pulling in all people,” she said. “We’re using the clerks, we’re using the nurses, we’re using the environmental folks to respond to that emergency.”

Voters will decide in April whether a tax increase should go to support the health department, which has reduced staffing and services while faced with declining grant funding.

If passed, the referendum on the ballot would generate about $500,000 a year through a property tax rate increase that county officials said would cost taxpayers $9.57 for each $100,000 of equalized assessed value.

This means the owner of a $150,000 home would pay about $15 more each year to the county to fund public health services. The average tax per acre of farmland would increase by 11.5 cents an acre.

When the issue came before the DeKalb County Board in November, the referendum was approved by an 18-6 vote.

Among the dissenters was County Board Vice Chairman Tracy Jones, R-District 1.

Jones said he voted against putting the referendum on the ballot because he did not want to endorse another tax increase.

“We’re taxing people to death,” Jones said. “People are moving out of the county already because the taxes are too high. Even if it’s a good cause, the government needs to find a way to get along.”

Jones said that although the health department provides great services, he does not believe a tax increase is the answer.

“You can find services that are needed all across government,” he said. “We just can’t do it all.”

Despite concerns about an increase in taxes, a group called the Citizens for Public Health Committee has started organized support for the referendum.

Co-Chairwoman Jane Lux, a former director of the health department for 35 years, said the committee has been visiting groups throughout the county, distributing information and getting the message out to urge people to vote.

“In the 50-year history of the health department, we’ve never had a referendum to increase property taxes,” she said.

Lux said people in the community have generally been supportive of the tax increase once they understand the scope and relevance of public health services.

“You may not realize, but public health affects everyone,” she said. “From inspecting restaurants to preventing disease.”

Lux also said the grant-funded services, such as maternal and child health programs, are at greatest risk for elimination.

Gonzalez said one of her biggest concerns about continuing to reduce staff is that it restricts the department’s ability to respond to a public health emergency.

Even with increased tax dollars, she said, the department would continue applying to every possible grant and looking at further ways to contain costs and bring in revenue.

“[The referendum] is not to add staff; it’s not to add services or programs,” she said. “It’s really to sustain what we’re currently doing at the level that we’re currently doing it.”

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