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St. Lawrence County begins search for public health director

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County legislators reached a consensus Monday to keep Public Health as a stand-alone department — smaller because of the closing of its certified home health agency and facing the impending retirement of Director Susan J. Hathaway — after being persuaded by the Board of Health, which has a plan to reshape it.

“Public Health has traditionally played many roles, including care-giving. We have to continue to provide the mandated services, although we are shifting away from direct care,” said Dr. Gregory J. Healey, the incoming president of the Board of Health. “We remain an unhealthy county. We want to avoid costly programs. We can form partnerships and see that good things happen.”

County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire had started to look at combining Public Health with Community Services — as has been done in a handful of other counties under a commissioner but which still requires a director of public health — but told legislators she wanted to discard the idea after talking with the Board of Health.

St. Lawrence ranks 62 out of 63 counties in its health rankings, which could give Public Health an advocacy role as the Affordable Care Act kicks in, Dr. Healey said.

Although some legislators warned they did not want to hear about grants that died after several years while the programs continued at local cost, Dr. Healey said there is an opportunity for management of community resources.

“If I don’t come to you for more money, then you won’t complain about what we do,” he said. “We’re not going to grow the budget.”

A majority of legislators agreed the idea was worth exploring.

“If our costs don’t increase but we can take better care of our residents, I think that’s a good thing,” said Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg.

The person selected will need the right qualifications because the job could include developing programs that persuade people to change their lifestyles, said Legislator Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk.

An interim director is likely as Ms. Hathaway is leaving at the end of August.

Public Health combined with Community Services under the helm of Director Angela M. Doe remains a possibility for some legislators if the right candidate is not found who could steer Public Health in the direction envisioned by the Board of Health. “I’m not so much a structure person,” said Legislator Stephen M. Putman, D-Canton. “I’m more a quality person kind of person.”

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