Delaware News

Leader: Mumps outbreak proves health district's value

County voters will decide next week on levy that provides more than half of district's funding

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As Election Day approaches, Delaware County's top health official says an ongoing mumps outbreak has shown how important the Delaware General Health District's services are to the county.

The district is seeking a renewal of its 0.7-mill, 10-year levy on the May 6 ballot as its staff continues to investigate potential mumps cases within the county. If the levy is renewed, property owners would continue to pay $19.20 annually per $100,000 in property value to support the district.

Health Commissioner Shelia Hiddleson said that funding is important because "it helps us to be able to have a robust communicable-disease team" to lead investigations.

Hiddleson said the district generally has an epidemiologist and two or three nurses on its communicable-disease staff. As the number of potential mumps cases in the county continues to grow, she said the district has shifted employees from its environmental-health division to the communicable-disease team to help out.

Twenty-nine cases of mumps had been documented in Delaware County as of Thursday, April 24.

Hiddleson said the state requires health departments to investigate every potential case of mumps in their jurisdictions, which she called an "unfunded mandate." The investigation requires district employees to contact physicians and affected individuals and document evidence of the outbreak.

She said the district has to pool its existing resources because extra work does not mean extra funding.

"We have to look at: Are there any activities we can put on hold?" she said, "because you can't put the mumps on hold."

The current levy, set to expire at the end of 2014, provides between 55 percent and 60 percent of the district's operating budget. The rest of the district's funding comes from grants and fees.

Hiddleson said, unlike levy funding, those grants and fees often are available only for specific purposes and cannot be spent at the district's discretion.

Hiddleson said she is not worried that low voter turnout for the primary election might hurt the levy's chance of passing. Although she has called the health district the county's "well-kept secret" in the past, she said she thinks a knowledgeable voter base, even if it's small, will benefit the district.

"I think the people that will come out to vote do know the services we provide on a daily basis behind the scenes," she said.

If the levy were to fail, the district would have another chance to seek a levy in the fall. If voters reject both requests, the district would face layoffs and reduction of services, Hiddleson has said.

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