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Putnam officials say plenty of blame to go around in health board mess

By Candace Nelson

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - As they scramble to get control of a financial crisis, Putnam County Health Department officials say there is blame to be shared for the situation.

Board of health members voted one week ago to lay off the department's entire staff of 12 employees. In an emergency meeting, board members also decided to enter a six-month contract with the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to continue providing services. Putnam's yearly $414,000 state allotment will fund that contract.

The Putnam County Health Department also has vacated its new facility in search of less expensive space.

The financial woes stem in part from the decision to move into the larger facility in 2010, said Lolita Kirk, senior interim administrator. At the time, officials hoped the larger facility would enable them to expand services.

"The lease for the facility was more than the department could cover," Kirk said.

She was recently appointed to the position to iron out the department's finances. Kirk also has served as director of administration at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department for seven years.

The building was vacated last Friday with the help of the Putnam County Commission, Kirk said. She's trying to find a new location to open and start offering services.

Kanawha-Charleston has a sanitarian in the field performing inspections in Putnam County, and patient appointments are being made at the Charleston headquarters, she said.

Kirk hopes to have a new location selected as soon as possible.

"I have three or four more calls to make and I'm still following up. I would love to have something temporary to work out of by the end of the week - I don't know if that will be successful or not," Kirk said.

The Putnam County Board of Health will manage who will take over the lease and manage what to do with the previous space.

Kirk also will soon send position descriptions to the state Division of Personnel. She needs four people to handle sanitarian, nursing and clerical work.

"I don't truly know what the workload is going to be, so we're just doing four at first," she said. She said the jobs should be posted by next Monday.

State agencies often give priority to hiring workers who have been laid off by other state agencies, so Kanawha-Charleston could hire some of Putnam's laid-off employees, she said.

Legal battle

The health department also cites legal fees it paid to fight an employee grievance as contributing to the current mess. A former sanitarian filed a grievance for wrongful termination in 2010 and was reinstated in 2011. An appeal was then filed in Circuit Court.

The legal fees, which totaled more than $100,000, were higher than any Kirk had ever seen in her career.

Although he said blame for the financial crisis falls on many shoulders, Putnam County Commissioner and former health board member Joe Haynes also said former administrator Jackie Fleshman paid the legal fees before anything else.

"Other thing that hurt us in the previous administration is the way they prioritized the bill paying. The legal fees from a personnel matter got completely out of hand before the board was made aware," he said.

"That left us with a huge legal bill. The former administrator decided to pay those legal fees before she paid those day-to-day things - like rent and things like that.

"The board wasn't really aware that was going on before the administrator left, and a new one came in, and we found those irregularities."

Haynes left his position on the board on June 30 - a year early. The decision was made in November so that Haynes and Commissioner Andy Skidmore could get experience on different boards.

"We all serve on different boards, and we discussed to see who had interest in what and that sort of thing," Haynes said. "We agreed that I would leave Health and Transportation, and he would take those two. And I would take his Solid Waste and Work Force Investment"

"The reason I didn't do it then because was with the way things were going on with Health, we wanted to make a more easy transition. We decided to hold that one up until this time, giving us six months."

Haynes said Skidmore attended meetings when he wasn't officially on the board so that he wouldn't have such a steep learning curve.

The department has about $215,000 in overdue debts. That doesn't include current obligations. Past-due notices are received every day.

Kirk said the County Commission gives the health department an allotment of $150,000 per year, which will most likely be used to pay the debt.

"As invoices come in, they will prioritize it and will cut checks," she said.

Kirk said an audit of a purchasing card and a two-year fiscal compliance audit from the West Virginia State Auditor's Office would be released at the end of July, at the earliest.

That audit will provide some accountability for the department's financial downfall.

Joel McKinney took over as administrator of the Putnam County Health Department in February after Fleshman resigned. McKinney was among those laid off.  

Haynes said he never thought the legal fees would add up like they did.

"We all agreed to hire that attorney because we thought it was an open-and-shut thing. I don't think anybody on the board anticipated the costs would be that high. If we had known that they were mounting up like that, we would've pulled the plug."

Hindsight

Haynes regrets what happened, but says the trouble signs were harder to identify as they were occurring.

"When you have a board that's made up of volunteers - don't get paid, have their own jobs - they trust in what the administrator puts before them. Now, in hindsight, you say, 'Well we should've checked more closely.'

"Most committees like that trust in what the administrator tells them. There's fault all the way around. In hindsight, we shouldn't have hired an attorney. Hindsight is always 20 / 20," Haynes said.

He said the board faced a dilemma in 2010 when the owners of its headquarters planned to raise rent. The idea was to move to a larger space and expand clinical services, thereby bringing in more income.

"We brought a nurse practitioner on board. She left us after a few months . . . the clinical services never really did catch on; we didn't do that kind of business," he said.

"There are just too many competing entities in the private sectors - like urgent care facilities. People didn't think of the health department to come to for health services. The income never materialized like we thought it would."

Officials also have filed an application with the state Department of Health and Human Resources for $186,000 for expenses, but withdrew it when the state requested additional details just days before the deadline.

The largest chunk of unpaid bills is at least $80,000 for rent and "associated shared costs," according to officials.

Other unpaid expenses include at least $36,513 in vaccine costs; $18,000 in federal taxes; $8,570 in state taxes; and $4,513 to the state Office of Technology.

Contact writer Candace Nelson at Candace.Nelson@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-5148. Follow her at www.twitter.com/Candace07.

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