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New health board wrestles with staffing (or lack of …)

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PEPPERELL — The newly reconstituted Board of Health, in its second week of service, has addressed the nagging issue of staffing shortages and state mandates.

Prompted by receipt of a late-arriving application for the vacant health agent position advertised for some months, Chairman Scott Butcher and members Virginia Malouin and John Marriner tabled the application and halted further advertising pending the larger issue of setting the direction for a long-term solution.

Butcher said one option is to hire a full-time health agent licensed to conduct all mandated state inspections such as food (due every six months, with 15 due immediately), housing and septic inspections, handling complaints and acting as sanitarian, office manager and emergency planner.

A second option is to renew pursuit of a contract with Nashoba Associated Boards of Health which fall town meeting voters convincingly shot down.

Third, the town could “limp along” as-is with a part-time housing inspector (Robert Lambert), no food inspector, sanitarian, planner or manager other than board members, and contracted Title 5 inspector Kevin Ritchie.

Members agreed a couple of weeks are needed to “size up” the town nurse and health agent job requirements, knowing that a $1.7 million town budget deficit looms for 2010.

Butcher, and to a less-vocal degree Malouin, preferred contracting for Nashoba’s full services. Butcher said town meeting voters had been drawn into a narrowly focused, emotional argument about retaining the town nurse and had not been fully aware of the cost savings and benefits of contracting with the regional health board.

At the same time, he said he did not want to wait until spring’s annual town meeting to revisit the issue for fear it would be defeated. Butcher and Lambert said it may be an uphill struggle to convince Nashoba to once again spend time and money to seek Pepperell’s approval.

Butcher turned instead to strident arguments for paying a “professional” rate to acquire a full-time health agent.

Marriner did not agree with either move, saying “we need to get our arms around” the time and cost of all requirements.

“You want Nashoba, you carry the flag,” Marriner said, “I vote against it every time” because Nashoba’s historic inspection delays cost residents money, paying contractors to keep their equipment on site awaiting approval.

“I want proof (of Nashoba director James Garreffi’s claim of 24-hour response). I’m from Missouri,” Marriner said.

Butcher countered that state law grants a 45-day period for inspections and strongly disagreed with what he had experienced in previous duty as a board member — builders queued up outside meetings to acquire last-minute occupancy permits needed for house closings.

“I have no sympathy for those people who can’t plan ahead,” he said.

Arguing in favor of joining Nashoba, Malouin said the town has no back-up personnel to cover for vacations or absences, adding that town nurse Ellen Castellano had asked about such coverage.

Butcher stated a preference for joining Nashoba as the best solution.

“I went to the Groton health board meeting last night and their (Nashoba) agent was there. He gave a synopsis of every issue being worked on.”

On the other hand, Butcher said, “I don’t want to go to town meeting and try to shove something down its throat that it may not want.”

Later he said, “I have no issue which way we go, but a health agent must be full time.”

Marriner was unsure, saying, “The jury is still out. I’ve got to see what this person and the nurse are doing at work. I want the best bang for the buck.

“I’m not sure about Nashoba. We’re looking at a serious financial problem. We need to be sure we’re getting the most for the least,” he said.

If that means going with a part-time health agent (if a qualified candidate would accept the terms) and more involvement of the volunteer health board, “so be it,” Marriner said.