Town Council to consider leaving Trumbull Monroe Health District
The Trumbull Monroe Health District’s days may be numbered. The Town Council will vote Thursday night on a proposal to leave the the health agency, effectively disbanding it.
The two-town health district was created in 2004 and is governed by a board of directors, with two members from Monroe and four from Trumbull. The district handles health-related duties, including business and septic inspections, administering vaccines and community health programs, and working with other local and state agencies on public health preparedness and response.
First Selectman Tim Herbst said the reasons behind a Town Council resolution to leave the district are strictly financial, though he cited other concerns, including that health district employees can’t be held to the local code of ethics. Herbst said the central concern is what he called a growing bureaucracy at the district.
“The health district with was formed in 2004 with the intent of fostering regional collaboration, at a low cost to the taxpayers,” Herbst said. “I’ve asked our Finance Department to asses the cost escalation over the last few years. Trumbull’s contribution started out as under $200,000 and now it’s over 300,000.”
The resolution is on the agenda for the Town Council’s special meeting, Thursday, Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. The resolution says a vote must be made by Jan. 1, though the town would not leave the district, officially, until July 1.
If Trumbull leaves, the town would have start its own Board of Health, with members appointed by the first selectman, who would oversee health department staff. Herbst said he has discussed this issue with Monroe officials.
“Projections show we could save $50,000 to $100,000 right out of the gate,” Herbst said.
The financial concern and Thursday’s meeting came largely as a surprise to the TMHD Director Patrice Sulik.
Sulik said the district works closely with both towns each budget season, and receives budget approval from each.
“I’m disappointed it’s gone this far without us having more meaningful communication,” Sulik said.
Town officials recently asked for financial documents, Sulik said, but she did not expect a vote like this so soon.
Asked if she thinks the proposal to leave the district was made for any other reasons than financial ones, Sulik said, “The stated reason in the resolution is financial, so that’s what I have to go by. I'm a very straightforward person."
Sulik would like the discussion brought to a subcommittee of the Town Council first and she does not believe that has happened.
“I think it’s a big decision to make so quickly and I hope if there are real concerns, that we can bring it to a subcommittee and work closely together,” Sulik said. “I am confident if we work together, over a period of time, we could benefit from their expertise and they could have a much deeper knowledge of all the work we do here and costs associated with that.”
The Trumbull-Monroe Health District has six full-time employees, including Sulik, one part-time and a couple of subcontractors who work limited hours. Part of Herbst’s concern is that the district spends $175,700 for staff that handle septic issues, even though Trumbull doesn’t have as much of a need for that as Monroe does.
“We are 80 % sewered,” Herbst said. “We are sharing in 65% of the cost for a service we just don’t use as much.”
Sulik agreed there is more septic work in Monroe, though Trumbull still has areas that require a lot of attention. Trumbull also dominates the need for services in other areas, including inspections at Westfield Trumbull.
The Health District is in charge of food service inspections, cosmetology, day cares and public swimming pools inspections and testing recreational bathing areas.
“People don’t always agree with our regulatory work but our No. 1 priority is protecting the public,” Sulik said.
The district came under fire last summer when the organizer of the Trumbull Farmers Market blamed tough refrigeration regulations for keeping vendors from returning. The organizers decided not to continue with the market last summer.
Herbst was one town official unhappy with the disbanding of the market, though he said the reasons for leaving the district are “much bigger than a farmers market.”
“I am looking at this from a strictly financial perspective,” Herbst said. “But I would be lying if I said there haven’t been multiple complaints.”
Sulik said the district is always willing to discuss the circumstances around a failed inspection or complaint. Obviously, people can be upset if an inspection doesn’t go well, Sulik said, but that doesn’t mean all their claims are accurate or providing a full picture.
When it comes to the farmers market, Sulik said the district was eager to work with market vendors and officials who were concerned, including State Rep. Dave Rutigliano. They drafted a new policy last year for the Monroe market.
In addition to inspections, the district also has community outreach as a large part of its work.
“It is uncommon a week goes by without us having something in our local papers,” Sulik said.
The district also posts information on online, tmhd.org, and is looking to expand its website.
The district offers low-cost cholesterol and glucose tests, as well as vaccines for adults and children. The district also do free well water testing and offer radon kits to residents, that the district receives from the state.
“We try to be very cost-conscious,” shes said.
Another aspect of the work includes regional collaboration, in both emergency preparedness and overall community health. Working with other towns and cities can be vital, especially in keeping costs down.
“There is a lot of work that nobody in the public sees,” she said. “They don’t see the constant meetings and communication, or the training needed.”
TMHD employees are not considered town employees, which means they are not subject to Trumbull’s Code of Ethics. That’s a major concern for Herbst.
“If something happens where an employee engages in unethical behavior we have virtually no recourse,” he said.
Recently, he said he heard TMHD had used a district email list to inform people about Thursday’s meeting, which he felt was inappropriate. Sulik said the district did send out an email as an update on the latest health district news. She did not feel it was inappropriate but is willing to work to remedy any ethics code concerns.
“Couldn't the town just ask for us to to create a code of ethics to mirror their own — through the appointed board members,” Sulik asked.
The Town Council will hold its special meeting to consider leaving the health district on Thursday, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. Sulik will be at the meeting to speak on the resolution and hopes the council will not rush into a decision.
Herbst said he will also be there to speak on financial concerns and how leaving the district could mean long-term savings.
“We are looking at this from the perspective of what is the best interest of the taxpayer,” Herbst said.