Heated debate ends with no vote

GILMAN — A contentious debate that involved finger-pointing, yelling and accusations of dishonesty ended quietly Tuesday night, as Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department board members left the Gilman-Danforth District Library without taking a vote on the subject of all the controversy.

The board of health called the special meeting to decide whether to continue moving forward with the agency’s decision last fall to provide home-health services in two neighboring Indiana counties.

The board of health also wanted to address rumors that attempts would be made by the Iroquois County Board’s newly appointed chairman, Rod Copas, to close the agency if the plan advances.

Tempers flared throughout the 90-minute meeting, held in front of a standing-room-only crowd estimated at more than 100 people, including health department employees and several board members from Ford and Iroquois counties.

Many wanted answers from Copas, who also serves on the board of health, about his intentions.

Copas was noncommittal on whether he would push for the dissolution of the health department, although he did say, “if we keep spending money in Indiana, it is going to be a problem.”

Copas confirmed that he has already had initial discussions with officials at Iroquois Memorial Hospital in Watseka to explore the possibility of the hospital taking over the duties of the health department if the agency is eventually dissolved. Copas said it would be a “backup plan if something goes wrong.”

According to Copas, the majority of the Iroquois County Board disagrees with the health department’s plan to contract with a home-health care provider that would serve residents of Newton and Benton counties in Indiana.

Copas said his main concern  is that the health department, which receives about 20 percent of its budget from property taxes in Ford and Iroquois counties, should not be legally allowed to spend money generated in its jurisdiction on services provided outside of the two counties.

Public Health Administrator Doug Corbett, meanwhile, noted that the home-health services would be provided in Indiana for a fee charged to those receiving the services, so the programs would pay for themselves with no impact on local tax monies. The fee should even generate revenue, making the health department less reliant on property taxes, Corbett has said.

Corbett said the health department decided to look into the expansion of home-health services into Indiana as a way to generate revenue and help address a projected $138,000 shortfall in this fiscal year’s budget.

But Copas said he is concerned about the legalities of spending the agency’s money in another state. The department has already hired a doctor from Kentland, Ind., and a consultant. The health department has also signed a one-year lease, for $400 per month, to rent an office in Kentland, Ind., for the home-health care services, according to Corbett.

Iroquois County State’s Attorney Jim Devine and Ford County State’s Attorney Matt Fitton have both looked into the legal issues.

Devine, who earlier had told Corbett that the move would be legal, has now changed his opinion and believes that it would not, according to Copas and Ford County Board Chairman Rick Bowen, who met with the two county attorneys earlier on Tuesday.

Devine has contacted the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to get its opinion, as well, but the attorney general’s office is still researching the matter.

Unlike Copas, Bowen has not spoken out against the idea of the health department expanding some services into the two Indiana counties. He said in October that he liked the idea that “we are taking the blinders off and thinking outside of the box.” He reiterated his feelings Tuesday, saying he had no problem with the program if it is legal and ethical.

Upon the advisement of Devine and Fitton, the health department board did not vote Tuesday on whether to continue efforts to provide home health services in Indiana. The item was listed on the meeting’s agenda, but the two state’s attorneys advised against taking a vote because the meeting was held without the required 48-hour public notice. Devine said the meeting’s agenda was posted Friday afternoon, but  he said it did not meet the public notice requirement because the Open Meetings Act does not allow weekends or holidays to count toward the 48 hours.

The board of health has not called another meeting yet to further discuss the issue, the agency’s spokesman, Julie Clark, said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Copas and Bowen made plans Tuesday night to consult their counties’ state’s attorneys to start the process of forming a separate advisory committee comprising members of both county boards. The resolution forming the health department states that such a committee is supposed to meet quarterly to monitor the activities of the board of health and to make recommendations. But Copas said Tuesday it appears it never has.

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