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St. Joseph County Council overrides Commissioners’ vetoes on 2022 budget, CDC grant

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WVPE News
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St. Joseph County’s 2022 budget and a Centers for Disease control grant focused on minority communities will now go into effect after the County Council overrode last week’s vetoes by the County Commissioners Wednesday night.

The all-Republican commissioners vetoed accepting the $3 million, three year CDC grant over concerns about language in the application that the county would assist the CDC in tracking and quarantining COVID-19 cases.

The health department already has three community health workers on staff, but the grant allows it to hire eight more. That team would provide a number of services — including lead testing, blood pressure screenings, COVID-19 testing and help with health insurance — to census tracts deemed “vulnerable” by CDC data.

It’s the same grant Elkhart County rejected last month, which contributed to the resignation of Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait.

And at the Oct. 20 board of health meeting, St. Joseph County Health Officer Dr. Bob Einterz called the veto "political theatre" and said it was "unbecoming" of county leadership.

“This is a kick in the teeth to the members of my department," Einterz said during the meeting. "And I find it highly offensive on the part of the commissioners that voted for this that they did this to the morale of my team.”

And during the Wednesday County Council meeting, multiple council members said it would be irresponsible to not accept the grant.

Democrat Diana Hess said the county faces “significant health disparities,” which the grant could help combat.

“We are at the top of the list for all the bad health outcomes, and at the bottom of the list for all the good health outcomes,” Hess said. “For us to turn down three million dollars because of alleged strings attached to the money is absurd.” 

Fellow Democrat Joseph Canarecci agreed.

“The fact that we’re even considering not appropriating this money is ridiculous,” Canarecci said. “This is not something that will benefit us today or tomorrow but will quite likely have a meaningful impact for generations to come.”

And council member Richard Pfiel, a Republican, said he supported overriding the veto for three reasons.

“If we turn these 3 million dollars back to the feds, will they save taxpayers money? They will rush it out to benefit another community,” Pfiel said. “Secondly, what about strings attached? ARP and COVID have multi-millions that have strings attached, as is typical of all federal programs. I do not believe we should terminate our benefit from these programs due to strings.” 

If the grant is rejected, Pfiel said the county should pay for the program with its own money because it may save lives.

Applause erupted in the chamber when the veto was overridden by a 7 to 1 majority, with only council member Mark Root, a Republican, voting no. Republican council member Mark Telloyan was absent.

The county council also voted 6 to 2, with Root and Pfeil voting no, to override the commissioners’ veto of the 2022 budget.

The budget raises the minimum yearly salary to $32,000 a year, or about $16.41 an hour. Other county officials — including members of the county council and board of commissioners — will also receive raises.

The commissioners said last week that they don’t object to those raises but wanted a more concrete plan for how they’re administered.

Another concern was spending. The county plans to spend between $2 and $3 million more than it expects to collect in revenue, but members of the county council said last week that’s balanced by healthy cash reserves and years of planning for deficit spending.

The county currently has $26 million in cash reserves.

The county council concluded the special meeting by voting to retain law firm Ice Miller as outside counsel on redistricting. In August, the county commissioners hired a law firm run by Republican former Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma to help with the process, a move that has sparked political tension.

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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Jakob Lazzaro comes to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.