HARWICH – As town officials discuss ways to expend the $1.27 million Harwich will receive from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, selectmen are increasingly recognizing the need to supplement health department staffing.
Health Department Director Dr. Katie O’Neill sent a memo to selectmen and Town Administrator Joseph Powers two weeks ago describing the strain the pandemic is placing on her understaffed department. Funding or staffing in the department had not been increased to meet the growing workload, she wrote. Staff members have been dealing with “psychosocial strain” on top of the significantly increased exposure risk. O’Neill requested that selectmen use ARPA funds to support her department. The funds could be used for more testing, to provide hazard pay for health department staff and increasing staff levels, she suggested.
The town has already received $635,443 in ARPA funds. An additional $635,443 will be made available in June.
“I heard the board offer strong support for our health department and I concur with that,” Powers wrote in a Jan. 14 memo to selectmen. “To that end, I am working with our health director to change the part-time health inspector role from part-time to full-time.”
The town has not been able to fill the part-time health inspector position. Powers told selectmen last week he thinks the change to a full-time health inspector can make an immediate impact on the department. The ARPA funds can't be used for the current year, but given the absence of a part-time health inspector, there are sufficient funds in this year’s budget to cover the full-time position for the remainder of the year, he said. He was planning to request that the position be made full-time in 2023, he added.
Former health director Meggan Eldredge, now the assistant town administrator, requested a full-time inspector a year and a half ago, but it was pushed off.
“We have the resources,” said Powers, who pointed out the ARPA funds could be used next year and through 2026 to cover the salary.
Selectmen Larry Ballantine and Julie Kavanagh supported the use of the ARPA funds to address health department needs. Finance Director Carol Coppola said the funds could be used for both health department staffing and to cover Visiting Nurses Association COVID-19 tracking expenses.
“The funds can supplement the budget, but can’t supplant it,” said Coppola.
Kavanagh said the funds should be used to provide hazard pay for health department staff. That request has been made by the town's collective bargaining associations, Powers said, and he is working with counsel to determine how broadly hazard pay provisions can be applied.
“Hazard pay relates to hourly wage employees, not salaried staff. It was provided to help lower paid folks,” Powers said.
ARPA funds are not a recurring revenue like taxes and it would “take a lot for me to be spending a one-time funding source on an ongoing position,” Selectman Donald Howell said.
Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill said the health department’s needs constitute an emergency issue, and the ARPA funds can be used for multiple years. Eventually, the full-time position would have to go back to town meeting for approval, he said.
“The health department has been hit in two different ways,” noted Kavanagh. “The pandemic, and the boom in building. It’s not every day we face this, but it’s hit us for two years – all those inspections. Somehow we have to help the health department. They are being bombarded.”
“I agree with that,” responded Ballantine.
Selectmen sent a strong message to move forward with hiring a full-time health inspector.
The board needs to define its priorities for spending the ARPA funds, Ballantine said. Residents should also respond to a Barnstable County survey seeking feedback on whether the county's $41.3 million in ARPA funds should be divided by population to each of the 15 towns or whether it should be directed at regional projects.
The Barnstable County commissioners have identified four priorities for expending the ARPA money, including investment in infrastructure covering public health system costs; targeting negative economic impacts caused by the pandemic; funding proposals to replace lost public sector revenues; and providing premium pay to employees conducting essential work during the pandemic.
Selectmen recommended residents fill out the Barnstable County survey or send comments by email to ARPA@BarnstableCounty.org by Feb. 4.