Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Health department requests increase

BESSEMER — The Gogebic County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday heard a request for an allocation increase from the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department.

Kate Beer, the health officer for WUPHD, attended the county board meeting to discuss the fiscal year 2021 county allocation request and said the department is losing approximately $150,000 annually due mostly to a loss in Medicare reimbursements following federal adjustments and to the unfunded pension liability.

“Right now we are paying over $800,000 annually, about 50% of the payroll,” Beer said of retiree benefits.

The increase is expected to reach more than $1 million by 2022-23, she said. At that time the five-year phase in of the municipal employees retirement system (MERS) should start showing reductions.

Right now there are around 20 working staff who are paying into a plan with two-thirds of benefits going to retired workers, she said. The department was functioning two nurses short until the coronavirus pandemic made them essential, while the jurisdictional health departments do not qualify for certain pandemic relief from the state as do other health departments.

“Our request is to cover the MERS funding this year that went up $96,280 on top of what they already pay,” Beer said.

This is difficult to spread over five counties during difficult times and she suggested cost sharing or grant revenue options. 

WUPHD counties pay an average of $7.97 per person annually versus the $9 national average for similar population size, she said. Similar jurisdictional health programs $13 as an average annual cost with some rural and midwest allocations ranging from $12 to $21 per capita.

WUPHD is asking for a $1.38 per capita increase. This would raise the annual contribution to $96,285 and bring per capita spending to $9.35. Other options are for a $25,000 increase split across counties for $8.32 per capita spending.

The Gogebic County allocation under the intercounty agreement is $129,214, Beer said. The proposed increase would raise the contribution to $134,247.

The challenge to get five counties to agree to a total $157,747 contribution is considerable, she said. The current total is around $149,000.

Dan Siirila, county board chair, said the request is difficult to hear at a time when the county is asking workers to take cuts.

Joe Bonovetz, board member, said the health department is a state mandate that the county must support. Because of that the state should take a bigger share of the burden, he said.

James Lorenson, board member, spoke of his frustrations over mental health funding requirements that do not allow for programming or treating mild to moderate cases but does allow for raises and new furniture.

Beer said she shared the frustrations and said it is like getting the keys to a car that won’t start. 

George Peterson, board member, said he was not satisfied with the health department response to calls about pandemic questions.

He also wanted to see more concern for water and sewer testing in the county.

The county board 5-2 approved a proposed settlement in the Gogebic County vs. MTTP civil case. The action followed a closed session to discuss settlement strategy regarding litigation.

Board members Tom Laabs and Joe Bonovetz voted against accepting the undisclosed settlement regarding a bond disagreement with the Charter Township of Ironwood, Ironwood Area School District, Gogebic-Ontonagon Intermediate School District, Michigan Township Participating Plan, and U.S. Specialty Insurance. 

The entitlement case was filed Sept. 13, 2019 with Judge Janis Burgess of the 98th Judicial District Court and the Ontonagon County Probate Court in Michigan. The next hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Dec. 18.

“We agreed to the settlement proposal,” said Gerry Pelissero, Gogebic County clerk of court and register of deeds.

In other business, the board 7-0 approved:

—A resolution supporting a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant application for land acquisition of land parcels totaling approximately 4,000 acres of property in the county.

—A resolution allowing Gogebic-Iron County Airport Board authorization and signatures for an improvement and equipment project contract with the Michigan Department of Transportation for airport terminal badging upgrade.