Far-right Ottawa County Board returns money to health department as payment on COVID measures

Community members wearing T-shirts reading “Public Health Saves Lives” packed an administration building in Ottawa County, Michigan, on Tuesday night to support the county’s struggling health department.

Inside, the county Board of Commissioners, dominated by a group of ultra-conservatives, voted to cut the department’s budget by $2.1 million, against the pleas of public health officials and community members.

Adeline Hambly, health officer for the county’s public health department, said last week that the cuts would result in closures of food programs for low-income families, vaccine programs, suicide prevention programs, dental care for uninsured children and programs for immigrants. Will happen. Communicable disease prevention, addiction resources, and sexually transmitted disease services. Funding for two of the county’s five epidemiologists will also be eliminated.

John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official who was appointed as county administrator by the Board of Commissioners, initially proposed a $2.5 million annual budget, a 63 percent cut, including “all COVID Discontinuation of grants related to Gibbs said the cuts are “returning to pre-COVID budget levels.”

The health department said Gibbs’ budget did not account for the long-term shortfall, and anticipated they would be forced to close within a few weeks. The county then proposed a new budget of $4.3 million – still $2 million less than previous funding.

At a packed public comment session, 64 people signed up to speak about the controversial proposal to gut the public health budget, with many urging commissioners to reconsider. Some cried, some shouted. Many described themselves as pro-life, Christian, or conservative, just like the commissioners.

Janine Chittenden, a nurse who has worked for the county for four decades, pleaded with commissioners to “be compassionate, not vindictive.”

“My biggest concern right now with the health department budget is defining the nutrition program,” Chittenden said. “What would Jesus have done? He asked us to feed the poor.

Dr. Ruth Lowery, chaplain at the local hospice, told the board the community “is in mourning.”

“We are not respecting each other. And what this body has done and is proposing to do to the Department of Public Health is obscene,” Lowry said.

Most of the speakers spoke in support of the health department. However, some supported the Ottawa Impact Commissioner’s budget and declared that “Jesus is the Lord of Ottawa County.”

Ottawa County Republican Party Executive Committee member Christy Meppelink (along with all Ottawa Impact commissioners) rejected claims that the six commissioners were “callous”.

“What was really harsh was the shutdown of the health department, the closure of businesses, the ridiculous contact-tracing, the ineffective mask mandates on our children, which caused them to be left behind by two years … and free citizens,” Meppelink said. were locked in their homes.” “To live a life in a county that has the right to freedom and not a burden on taxpayers.”

The vote to eliminate the health budget was the latest move by six far-right candidates associated with “Ottawa Impact”, who won a majority on the Board of County Commissioners in August 2022. Since then, he has fired top county officials, installed a former Trump administration official and MAGA loyalist as county administrator, closed the county’s Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion, and changed the county’s motto. Changed from “Where You Belong” to “Where Freedom Rings”.

Since the board’s first meeting on January 3, 2023, he has taken particular aim at the county’s public health department, seeking to remove Hambly as health officer and cut millions from the department’s budget. Hambly filed a lawsuit against the board members, saying they were attempting to fire him without “just cause.” She was granted an injunction, allowing her to continue working until the case went to the appeals court.

Hambly said during public comment that he has been left out of discussions about the health department’s budget after warning commissioners of the consequences of the cuts.

“No one can cut budget funding and staffing by 50% and maintain programs at current levels,” Hambly said, speaking from the floor during the meeting. “So even if you don’t want to say it out loud, in reality, you are cutting services to children and families through this action.”

Current chair of the board, local parent and businessman Joe Moss, founded Ottawa Impact after a dispute with the Board of Commissioners over COVID mandates. Libertas Christian School, a private religious school where Moss is a director and treasurer, was closed by the local health authority in October 2020 for allegedly failing to follow COVID guidelines or cooperate with contact tracing I went.

After filing an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Department of Public Health over the mask mandate, Moss founded Ottawa Impact and worked to recruit candidates based on conservative religious and political values. The final group ousted seven outgoing Republicans from office, and tilted the board’s politics to the right.

Tom Nieboer, a food inspector at the Department of Health, described the Ottawa Impact board member’s hostility toward the department as retaliation for pandemic politics.

“All of this because we tried to treat you with a little compassion and empathy during a pandemic that has taken the lives of a million Americans,” Niebauer testified during a public comment session. “Okay, you did it. You have to take your revenge. Now we all have to live with the consequences of your choices. “We will do our best to continue serving this county, but it will be difficult to do so without the resources.”

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