Health officials face budget squeeze

Jan. 16, 2013 @ 04:01 AM

Cutting budgets to cover a potential $41 million county budget gap could be painful for health officials. 
County budget makers want health officials to consider cutting as much as $2 million to reach a 15 percent budget-cutting target. The Department of Public Health could lose as many as 30 vacant and filled jobs, drop several partner agencies and downsize several programs as part of the proposed cuts, according to an outline the Board of Health discussed Monday.  The agency has endured county funding cuts for several years. The agency’s budget, which once totaled $40 million, has been cut to $34 million.  
“When the county is facing a $41 million deficit, you have to expect another tough year, ” Dennis Hight, health department finance director, told the board. “We are still working on this, and we are about $300,000 short on our $2 million.”
The budget gap was created by the county’s $1 billion debt, including for $457 million for school construction and a new $100 million, 1,000-bed jail in downtown Greensboro. The county debt payment could grow to $106 million in 2014, or 16 percent of the budget.
On the cut list again for the health agency are the Community Alternatives Program, an in-home nursing care service for disabled people, Family Services of the Piedmont, animal control, which could lose two officers, and the county animal shelter, which faces a $275,000 cut. The proposed cuts would reduce agency staff to 365, down 25 percent from what it was just five years ago.
“We are to the point of cutting programs now,” said Board Chairman Justin Conrad. “It is not a pretty picture.”
Board member Skip Alston of Greensboro, a recently retired Democratic county commissioner, urged the board “not to be part of the cuts.”
“Commissioners should decide,” Alston said. “We should not cut programs, and be adamant about that. Commissioners have not cut something that was not recommended for a cut.”
Not offering cuts could be a dangerous plan, Conrad said.
“It could be like a game of chicken,” Conrad said. “They could cut something we don’t want cut and a program for which we are the only provider.”
County Manager Brenda Jones-Fox has estimated that the county may have to raise the property tax rate 9.4 cents to pay for the debt and to create a pay-go financing plan to reduce the need to borrow money for future construction programs.