Trumbull votes to leave health district
The town will officially leave the two-town district July 1, essentially disbanding it.
Despite efforts of a few on the board, including District 3 Democrat Vicki Tesoro, and members of the public who thought the decision was rushed, the vote passed with overwhelming support. District 3 Democrat Vicki Tesoro, District 1 Democrat Daniel Marconi and District 3 Republican Lori Rosasco-Schwartz were the sole dissenters.
Discussion about the proposal lasted for about two and a half hours. Monroe First Selectman Steve Vavrek and other town officials were at the meeting to see the outcome.
Before the vote, Dr. Larry Dinkes, the former chairman of the Trumbull Monroe Health District board, urged the council to reconsider the motion. Before the health district was formed in 2004, he called Trumbull “The Wild West” as far as lax regulations on restaurants and other food establishments. He said the town would be moving backward by disbanding the district.
“You guys do what you want you want to do but I think you are making a huge mistake,” Dinkes said.
Those who supported the proposal to leave, brought forward by First Selectman Tim Herbst, said it would give the town a financial break and give the town more local control. Town Council Chairman Carl Massaro Jr. applauded the great work of the district but said he was disappointed to see that after it was formed, employees of the district chose a “Cadillac” pension plan from the state, leading to the district needing to take out a $100,000 loan to cover an unfunded pension liability. He called that a "flag."
“No one is suggesting that the health district was a failure,” Massaro said.
Council members also cited a “duplication of efforts” that could be cut back, by bringing the department in-house.
Herbst said the town is ready to move on forming its own Board of Health which will look to hire a health director first. The town will aim to hire two full-time and one part-time sanitarian, as well as a nurse and health educator.
“I don’t want anyone here to think if you withdraw that it will hurt the quality of service,” Herbst said.
Herbst said many great employees work for the district and he encourages them to apply for jobs in Trumbull’s health department.
The roughly $300,000 the town contributes to the district will be moved to a new section of the town’s operating budget. Herbst said there will be savings right from the start, potentially up to $80,000.
While Herbst said the main reason to leave the district is to realize savings, he said increased local control is part of it. He said bringing the health department under the town umbrella would increase the town’s budgetary controls, internal controls and operational control.
District 3 Republican Michael London asked health district members about negative feedback he has heard from a chain restaurant owner in town and from those upset with the farmers market not returning. Last spring, the market master decided not to bring the market back, citing what she called stricter than normal regulations placed on the market by the Trumbull Monroe Health District.
“Are we trying to impose standards in a more literal sense than others are,” London asked members of the district.
Board member Mitch Fogel, who recently began serving, said he was also upset to read articles about the farmers market getting closed down by the district.He said that media reports were inaccurate and, once he spoke with district staff, he understood the reasons behind regulations on certain farmers market vendors who sell pre-cooked items. (Editor’s note: The Times never reported that the district closed down the farmers market. Times staff spoke with TMHD Director Patrice Sulik, the market master and town officials for the story. See original story here.)
Director Sulik said that there are many important reasons that certain regulations are enforced. The district’s main job is protecting public health. By state law, the district can’t make cases of widespread foodborne illness public, but it is a major concern.
“Are we very careful and thorough, yes we are,” Sulik said.
The Trumbull Monroe Health District will continue to operate until July 1. Find out more about its services at TMHD.org. Herbst said the town is ready to hit the ground running in beginning to form it’s own department. Where the department will be housed is still up for discussion.
In an interview with The Monroe Courier, Vavrek said he has been actively speaking to other area health districts, including the Valley, Newtown and Stratford, to discuss potentially joining their ranks once the Trumbull Monroe Health District shuts down on July 1. Monroe’s other options, he said, include forming its own health department or reverting back to the system used before Monroe joined the health district in 2004. The town will also be following along closely as Trumbull forms its own Board of Health to weigh the pros and cons of creating a town health department. Trumbull has been very forthcoming in providing Monroe with information regarding its withdrawal from the district and plans for its own department, he added.
Vavrek said he didn’t want to point fingers, but rather, aims to focus on doing what’s best for his town.
“All I know is that in the future, we have to work for the best interest of Monroe,” Vavrek said. “It’s a matter of doing what’s best for the citizens of Monroe to get the services to where we feel they’re needed.”
At this point in time, Vavrek said, it’s unclear what will be the most cost effective route for Monroe to take, adding that his staff will be working hard to get answers following the close of the holiday season.
Vavrek’s staff is somewhat panicked, he said, as the town has plenty to deal with between now and the disbanding of the health distirct on July 1, especially because the district has been so effective for the community.
“Politics aside,” Vavrek said, “ we’ve got to do what’s right for the town.”
For more on this story, see next week’s Trumbull Times.
Kait Shea contributed to the reporting.