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Board of Health goes 'back to the drawing board' on grant policy

Interlochen Public Radio | By Michael Livingston

Published August 7, 2023 at 1:56 PM EDT

One board member from Antrim County wants his committee to review each new and existing grant. That request has, so far, only resulted in gridlock.

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan Board of Health continued to squabble over how the department should review grant opportunities in its first meeting since June. The conversation this week continued a dispute from previous meetings. In May, whether to apply for a $500,000 Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles Initiatives grant caused the board to fail in a vote to approve its own agenda. On June 6, when the board met last, it passed a 7-1 motion to require every future grant application go before the full board. The board also agreed to create a policy for handling grants in the future — something that the health department’s Health Officer Daniel Thorell said he has never done before. Thorell worked with the Programs and Evaluations subcommittee throughout the summer to draft the policy. He presented the draft to be approved this week. “The purpose of this policy is to establish a review process for HDNW staff and the Program and Evaluation Committee to follow when potential future grants are being considered,” the draft reads. A full copy of the draft policy is on the Board of Health’s website. Disagreement arose when Jarris Rubingh, one of two board members from Antrim County, presented amendments to the draft policy on copies he passed out to other board members. One of his amendments was to change the definition of “future potential grants” to include both new grant opportunities and “the renewal of existing programs.” This would give authority to the Programs and Evaluations subcommittee, which Rubingh chairs, to review any existing grant programs the Health Department oversees before moving to the full board for approval. “The rationale for that is that there have been a few programs in the health department that have not been particularly popular with our constituents,” Rubingh said. “If [the programs and evaluation subcommittee] only has the opportunity to review new [grants], even if we have a bad one, we’d never have the opportunity to review it.” The health department currently receives funding for estimated 129 grants, according to the agency’s Public Information Officer Janenne Pung. Because of the large number of grants, some board members and staff argued Rubingh’s amendment could create a lot of extra work. Director of Family Health Melissa Hahn said she was concerned the amendments could also remove discretionary power from staff. “I get emails every single day about grant opportunities and so I make decisions based on our mission, staffing and services,” Hahn told Rubingh. “Would you really want me to bring every single one of those to you as well?” After more discussion, a vote to approve Rubingh’s amendments to the draft grant review policy failed in a 4-4 tie. Moments later, a vote to approve Thorell’s draft policy as it was presented also failed. “I guess it’s back to the drawing board,” said Board Chair Scott Hankins of Charlevoix County. Thorell and Deputy Health Officer Holly Campbell said they will continue working with Rubingh and the rest of the subcommittee to write a grant review policy ahead of the board’s next meeting on Sept. 5. “We both want to see open communication between the full Board of Health and the health department staff,” Campbell said. “We want transparency and the ability to still do our day-to-day operations and our jobs that we’re so passionate about while letting the commissioners have their input noticed and potentially, in a policy.”

Other business

  • The Board voted to approve Charlevoix County Community Foundation’s Unmet Needs Grant that will help offset about $900 for postcards sent to 1065 individuals in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The postcards will contain information about local farmers markets. The motion passed 6-2.

  • Board members unanimously voted to approve a resolution opposing Senate bills 0299 and 0300 and House bills 4479 and 4480, commonly known as the Statewide Sewage Code. If passed in the legislature, the new law would require inspection of all septic systems every five years. Local health departments across the state argue it would be impossible to oversee because of much greater expenses and workload for staff. The Board of Health’s full resolution is available on the health department website.

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