Even if the Jasper County Supervisors decide to fix the county annex building’s foundation and address potentially hazardous mold findings, Margot Voshell said the basement of the annex building still isn’t the appropriate location for Jasper County Public Health.
Voshell, who serves as the chairwoman of the health board, said she hasn’t heard from any of the three county supervisors since the Newton Daily News published the findings of a county-commissioned mold report that revealed black mold in the public health department’s office and a recommendation for professional mold remediation.
“What we would really like to do is have a dialogue with them,” Voshell said. “We hope they have the same goals as we do which is to have our county address unmet health needs.”
During an August board of supervisors meeting Voshell voiced the concerns of the public health board after an engineering firm released a report detailing issues with building’s exterior foundation, window wells and handicap accessibility.
“It has been made perfectly clear the basement of the annex building is not acceptable, it is not an acceptable space for people to work,” Voshell said. “People have said they are not going to go down there and ... to have my team who are responsible for working in those conditions, it is not acceptable.”
Beyond the annex building’s woes, in the nearly two years since public health moved to the building, it’s become evident the space doesn’t allow the department to meet its needs, Voshell said. Director Becky Pryor said she works with what she has but it isn’t the ideal space for a health department.
“When they built this building they did not think it was going to be a health department in this basement,” Pryor said. “It is not designed to be a clinic.”
The focus of the department since taking over services from Skiff Medical Center in February 2016, is essentially to promote healthy living by providing a myriad of services. Public health provides immunizations for children, performs school audits, completes communicable disease investigations, conducts education and promotions including injury prevention, participates in emergency preparedness and performs the community health needs assessment and health improvement plan for the county.
In their current office, health department staff are hindered because of the lack of space. Pryor said she often she looks outside of the facility to hold programming and participates in activities alongside other facilitators because of the lack of space in the basement.
While the designated exam room for the department has become a shared office, the meeting boardroom — the largest space in the department — doubles as the lower level’s lunch room.
“I have considered doing family planning and other things here but the only restroom we have ... it’s not suitable for that ... you just can’t do (the work) in that space,” Pryor said. “Even if you think you want to do something, it is just not feasible.”
Another barrier for the department is accessibility. In the Shive-Hattery engineering report detailing the condition of the building’s exterior foundation, it recommends replacing the current handicap accessibility ramp.
“It doesn’t meet (the) current code requirement, the length is too long and it requires an intermediate landing for a breakpoint for accessibility purposes,” civil engineer Christopher Bauer said. “We don’t know the ramp slope but it is questionable whether or not that meets (code), too.”
When assessing her department, Pryor said she often looks to neighboring county departments to see how they function. In Marion County, a similar county with a slightly smaller population, the health department purchased a building, renovated it and has been growing services for its citizens ever since. From dental clinics to having abundant storage space, the county is working to fulfill local needs. With adequate space, Pryor believes Jasper County could do that and more.
“Right now I only write (grants) for things I know that I can do here or I know we can do outside our office or I help other people write grants, so they can get the funds,” Pryor said. “Yes, we are limited on what we can, we could do so much more if we had a different space.”
Pryor said the ideal location would be able to accommodate several providers for a “one stop shop” for clients. With many barriers already inhibiting clients from making it to clinics and keeping health needs up to date, bringing multiple services together at one time would only further benefit the clients in need.
“I can envision having WIC (Women, Infants and Children) in a clinic, having three or four exam rooms, having our immunization clinic there at the same time, having Parents as Teachers there and maybe even the hospital’s weigh and grow program, just to have everyone under the same roof at the same time,” Pryor said. “We all have similar goals and that way we aren’t duplicating services and trying to utilize people better. That would be the dream world for our clients.”
The board of health, along with department staff and county officials, have toured several locations in Newton as potential sites for the department. County supervisors have not made a decision on relocating public health and have now shifted focus to the overall use of the entire building.
A space analysis study on the annex building was approved in August to determine functions of departments and services housed within the building, calculate the approximate area used by each department and service and review the layout of each department and service to determine the utilization of space. The study is still underway with results expected to go before the board when completed. A firm complete date on the analysis has not been announced.
When talking about any potentials moves, several options have been put on the table from the health department relocating to the entire staff in the building being housed in a new location. Supervisor Joe Brock also brought up the potential of constructing a new location for county offices.
“I haven’t seen anything in this town with existing buildings that I am excited about,” Brock said during the meeting. “We can look at these old buildings, I have spent six years working on old buildings and I don’t care to have any more. I mentioned here a while back maybe a new building so we don’t have the maintenance costs. Those old buildings just never quit draining you. I think there is some support out there (for the new building,) too. I think we should at least explore all of our options.”
Brock has not found that support from his fellow board members, with supervisor Doug Cupples saying, “I’ll tell you what’s not going to happen, we’re not going to build a super-huge building.”
Now with the new knowledge of the April mold analysis results that show the home care aide’s office has black mold spores and it may be advisable to have the walls in other areas of Jasper County Public Health (the immunization room and the environmental health director’s office) probed by remediators — Voshell says her concerns are growing.
“Now that we know there could be concerns that may compromise health, are we being good stewards by inviting people in?” Voshell said. “Should we be encouraging mothers to bring their babies for immunizations? Are people going to come to our programs knowing there may be a health concern?”
— Reporter Mike Mendenhall contributed to this report.
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