Voters did something Tuesday they haven't done since the Eisenhower Administration -- they approved new money for the Portage County Health District.
Voters approved Issue 1, updating a 58-year-old, 0.4-mill levy that has been in effect since 1955, by a vote of 3,523 to 2,778, according to complete but unofficial final results from the Portage County Board of Elections. The victory came on voter turnout of 8.87 percent, the lowest in recent memory.
"I guess the 39th time's the charm," said an ecstatic DuWayne Porter, health commissioner for the district that serves all of Portage except Kent and Ravenna.
"I can't tell you how much I want to thank the groups out there. They supported us this time like never before, they helped us get the word out" with letters in the Record-Courier and discussions on WNIR, Porter said. Replacing the levy will give the district the opportunity to bring in people and services that will lead to accreditation, something Porter said was in doubt before.
Without accreditation, the department could be forced into a merger with a neighboring county, he said.
"We may have been forced into a merger of some sort, with the state assigning us to any other health department and then assessing the townships and villages a fee to pay for the services," with no say so from local officials, he said.
Bob Palmer, health board president, said he was very grateful for the vote "because it's one of the giant steps we have to take to have the department accredited. We'll be able to do some things we have haven't been able to do, and provide more services to people."
The original levy brings in about $200,000 a year and costs $2.60 a year for the owner of a home with a $100,000 market value.
Bringing the levy up to date will cost that same homeowner $10 more a year, or about $12.60 a year, and bring in $1.08 million per year. The health district serves most of the county. Residents of Kent and Ravenna did not vote on the issue as those cities have their own health departments.
The closest the levy came to passage was in November 2012, when the health department had the same replacement levy on the ballot and won in 10 of 27 jurisdictions voting.
The replacement lost then by 730 votes on a final tally of 28,761 against to 28,031 for the levy, a difference of 1.28 percent.
After November's narrow loss, Palmer said people seemed to increase their support for the department.
"Suddenly, there seemed to be a realization that public health is very necessary," he said.
Bob Howard, board vice president and chairman of the levy committee, said he was also gratified at the levy's success.
"This one we actually put a lot of effort into. It's nice to see it pay off," he said. Howard said he felt the department's work with Kent and Ravenna departments, and getting a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to study collaboration of the three departments raised people's attention.
"It's really gratifying. We appreciate the confidence of the voters and we will use the money to do very good things. We will be proactive, monitor the water supply and do what we can to protect it, and replace services we've had to drop over the years, and have some new services," Howard said.
That will include seeking input from the public, he said.
"We want to be responsive, both in the way we enforce existing rules and regulations, but also in the way we might be able to help schools and various communities begin to address some of the longer range health needs of the people we serve and who pay the bills," Howard said.
Porter said the department "will keep our promise to lower the water testing fees for those people concerned about fracking. We don't know what that will be yet."
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