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A case for, against health director

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By Ben Carlson

The Anderson County Board of Health will likely decide the fate of embattled health director Brandon Hurley when it meets Thursday night.
This newspaper has not endorsed keeping him or firing him, and will not do so here. Instead, we’ll examine the pros and cons of each.
First some background. Hurley has been health director for about three years. Soon after he came aboard, the health board — an unelected group of residents with varied professional backgrounds — continued a decade-long discussion on whether to construct a new building.
That decision resulted in the new facility near Walmart, which board member Keith Klink accurately predicted the night of that vote would be a “public relations nightmare.”
Klink, who voted against the building, was indeed prescient. That building and its $2 million price tag drew remarkable public anger, based largely on spending so much money during the onset of what has proven a terrible recession.
That nightmare got worse over the next two years as the health department’s budget started hemorrhaging cash to the tune of $13,000 a month, forcing the health board to sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into the budget from its dwindling reserves. Doing so avoided layoffs and reductions in services or a massive tax increase, along with repeated warnings from health board members to Hurley to fix the budget problems.
To date that hasn’t happened, leading board member Judge-Executive John Wayne Conway to call for Hurley’s ouster.

The case for keeping Hurley
1. Hurley didn’t vote for the new building. As director, he can’t vote but is expected to make recommendations. He did just that, giving the board a list of a dozen options that included expanding the old location, purchasing and remodeling less expensive existing structures and others. The health board settled on the third and most expensive option on the list, the land near Walmart. Hurley clearly favored that option, but again, didn’t vote on it.
2. Hurley offered budgetary solutions. Hurley followed his orders from the previous year to fix his budget by presenting a variety of options earlier this year. Those options included cutting staff and services or raising taxes at least 33 percent. Realizing how unpalatable each of those options were to an already angry public, the health board opted to spend its shrinking reserves, again putting the onus on Hurley to fix the budget problem.
3. Fire him, then what? Aside from some possible salary relief, firing Hurley won’t fix the budget problems. The health board as much as admitted two weeks ago that the only real solutions lie in cutting costs or increasing revenue. Because 80-plus percent of the budget is payroll, cutting costs equates to cutting humans, a prospect that would only lead to dwindling services at a time when the demand for them is real. As for revenue, squeezing the indigent for payments isn’t the answer, which leaves property taxes as the only true option. Given the budget problems, higher property taxes will be a reality whether Hurley is fired or stays.

The case for firing Hurley
1. It doesn’t matter that Hurley didn’t vote for the building or budgets. That’s true, because he certainly lobbied to get both approved, and that’s a problem. The health board relies heavily on its director to make suggestions and, particularly on the building, received some remarkably poor advice. Hurley compounded that poor advice by stating clearly that the new building would not force a tax increase, grossly underestimating the impact of a bad economy on his department.
2. Crisis in confidence. Hurley continues to have the support of at least several health board members, but it’s clear that around half want him out. From vague meeting minutes to complaints of him failing to turn over requested documentation, Hurley has lost the confidence of a significant portion of the health board. The public’s confidence isn’t any better, and the longer both linger, the worse it will be for the health department to ever shed its image of nothing more than an unnecessary building that cost taxpayers millions.
That confidence crisis extends to Hurley’s staff, which is clearly divided in camps of those who want him to stay and others who want him out.
3. Image is everything. While blame for what has happened can be assigned elsewhere, Hurley remains the face behind those problems. Viewed by many on the board as aloof and unwilling to do as he’s told, he’s also viewed very negatively by many of the people paying his salary — the taxpayers. Snide remarks to angry residents and board members during meetings don’t help, either.
4. Avoiding the inevitable. Let’s face it, at some point the health board is going to have to raise taxes to stave off insolvency. Doing so is going to enrage an already angry public, particularly if Hurley remains in charge.
If he’s gone, that increase might be a little more palatable if the public believes the board, and whoever replaces Hurly, is sincere in trying to get the department on the right track.