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Putnam Health Department lays off entire staff

By Candace Nelson

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The Putnam County Board of Health made it official on Monday, voting to lay off its entire staff of 12 employees.

In an emergency meeting, the board also decided to provide services for at least the next six months through a contract with the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

Some of the displaced Putnam workers could be picked up by the Kanawha department.

"Given the financial situation being what it is, there's only certain things we can control. One of those is the cost of staff," said Putnam board member Joe Haynes.

"I would move that we institute a reduction in force of all staff pending approval by the state. We then contract with the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to provide public health services for Putnam County in Putnam County."

The board discussed such a decision on Friday but lacked the quorum needed to take action.

The board is supposed to have five members, but one seat is currently vacant. Three members were present Monday, and a fourth joined the discussion by phone.

About 12 full-time employees will be out of jobs within a week, said Lolita Kirk, the current senior interim administrator for Putnam County Health Department.

Kirk was appointed to the position nearly two weeks ago to iron out the financial issues. Kirk also is the director of administration at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, a position she has held for seven years.

The Putnam board's financial crisis stemmed in part from attorney fees it incurred as it fought a legal battle with a former employee who sued for wrongful termination in 2010 and was reinstated in 2011.

The department has about $215,000 in overdue debts. That doesn't include current obligations, and a past-due notice is received every day, Kirk said.

"It's an extreme measure," Kirk said. "For a Board of Health to have to agree to shut its facility, it's not something anybody wants to do in any community."

While Kirk declined to release employee names, she said she met with them Friday to address concerns. She told them there would be a workforce reduction, but she did not know to what degree.

She said some of the employees have been with the organization for more than 20 years.

"There is nothing I hate more than laying off employees even if they're not mine," Kirk said.

"I've gotten to know these people. They've been helping me for a week now trying to figure out where is this, where is that, answering my questions. Being very helpful to me, very kind, very gracious.

"And to have to look at those faces and say, 'OK, Friday is your last day.' Nobody wants to do that.

"My New Year's resolution every year? Not to lay people off. Every year since I became a manager. I don't like it."

The decision to lay off the employees will be reviewed by the state Division of Personnel.

"If they can't approve the action, then I'll have employees going into July," Kirk said. "It would be very difficult to meet the July payroll.

"Employees were paid current as of this Friday. Coming mid-July, it would be very difficult with the funding they have right now to meet the full payroll. Goal is to not have that final full payroll, frankly."

Kirk has requested an emergency meeting with the Division of Personnel to get the reduction in force approved.

She said workers laid off by state agencies are given preference for hiring by other state agencies, so some of those who lose their jobs in Putnam could be hired by Kanawha County.

The Putnam health board will contract with the Kanawha department for six months to offer services with Putnam's $414,000 in state funds. That is this year's allotment for the county to provide basic public services, Kirk said.

With that money, the Kanawha department can fill about six full-time positions, including sanitarians, a nurse and a clerical worker.

After six months, the board will re-evaluate the contract and determine whether to continue the arrangement.

Kirk said the goal is for the Putnam department to reopen once its finances are stable.

The same services offered in Kanawha County can be offered in Putnam County.

"Kanawha-Charleston is very good at taking our show on the road, so to speak. We provide vaccines all over the county," Kirk said.

"Even if we can't find an exam room that accommodates us, we're willing to go wherever they have room for us -- courthouse, community center, we'll set up shop."

Kirk said Putnam hasn't eliminated services to this point, but it has been unable to purchase adequate supplies of vaccines. Children with CHIP or Medicaid coverage can still receive vaccines, but supplies for others have been lacking, she said.

Kirk said she actually hopes to expand clinical services eventually.

The Putnam department will look for a new location and figure out what to do about its current leased facility. The department moved into a new, larger facility in Teays Valley in 2010 in hopes of expanding services.

The department had hoped to apply to the state health department for $186,000 in emergency funding, but it had to withdraw the application when the state requested additional details it could not provide by 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.

The Putnam County Commission is loaning the department $30,000 to cover necessary, immediate expenses.

Kirk said she anticipates an audit report to be available in July or early August.

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