Financially strapped Health Department could see relief

1B: Public Health Protection Initiative

When it comes to fiscal health, El Paso County's Department of Health and Environment's vital signs are fading.

The department is currently in the bottom 25th percentile in funding for communities our size. It also employs 194 full-time staff members -- compared to a national median of 473 for similar-sized institutions.

Overextended staff currently cut corners, for example they reduced restaurant inspections to staff efforts to combat West Nile Virus from June to September.

The department's dire outlook could be dramatically improved, Public Health Protection Initiative proponents say, if revenue caps mandated by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights were lifted. Ballot item 1B, they say, would do just that without raising taxes.

The Health Department is "absolutely in a bind because of TABOR," said Liz Feder, co-chair of the health initiative campaign. Large state-issued federal contracts for bioterrorism and infectious disease treatment dangle in front of the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment, she said, but revenue caps keep them from grasp. The initiative would lift the inflation-pegged revenue cap.

Past cuts, especially a $725,000 slash by the state from the department's budget for 2002, locked the budget at a lower level. The department's revenue shrank to $13.7 million in 2003, down from $15 million in 2001. The TABOR revenue cap "ratchets down" the amount the department can grow without voter approval.

The initiative's only known opponent is TABOR author Douglas Bruce; he calls it an "emotionally deceptive money grab," in publicly filed comments.

"1B will let government raise health fees without limit," Bruce continued. "Without revenue limits, watch abuses of fees, licenses, permits and fines skyrocket."

The initiative won't have the effect of large fee increases, Feder said, because the state strictly regulates the amount the department can charge for many fees and licenses. On the contrary, Feder said, "it would encourage the department to be entrepreneurial and increase the department's independence from its tax base."

She points out that 1B could actually decrease local taxes. That, she said, should be music to Bruce's ears.

-- Dan Wilcock


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