HAMMOND | Shaken Health Department workers walked out of Wednesday's contentious City Council meeting following a 5-4 vote against keeping the department in next year's budget.
Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. again had axed the department in his proposal to the council, this time opting to include limited services in a newly created Inspections Department until the arrangement was found not to meet state regulations for health departments.
"I'm very disappointed," Health Officer-Adminstrator Rodrigo Panares said. "It was obviously a political ploy. I don't know what kind of pressure the mayor put on."
Though initially Panares was kept on the payroll under the new department, he had heavily lobbied the council and the public to retain the Health Department.
Leading the charge to keep the department was Councilman Homero "Chico" Hinojosa, supported by council members Anthony Higgs, Robert Markovich and JoAnn Matonovich.
When they miss the services, Hinojosa told the audience, "Don't call Chico. Call the other council members."
Hinojosa argued the Lake County Health Department could not provide the same services with the $400,000 it put aside in case Hammond closed its Health Department. While the city's department had reduced its costs substantially, its budget remains at some $670,000, he said.
"We're going to lose tremendously," he said.
But Council President Dan Repay turned over the president's gavel to Higgs in accepting a challenge to explain his "no" vote. Repay said he was not for cutting the department because it did anything wrong.
"Everyone wants low insurance," he said alluding to the city's self-insurance fund, which is continually in the red.
Eliminating duplication of services was called for across the board to get control of the spending, he said.
Repay said to show he is serious he will call for the Legal Aid Clinic to be eliminated, a project, unlike the Health Department, long favored by the mayor.
Ultimately council members Kathleen Pucalik, Cynthia Berdine-Matasovsky and Al Salinas joined Repay in voting the Health Department out. The tie vote killed Hinojosa's measure, but Councilman Mark Kalwinski, often absent from his seat, returned in time to ask his "no" vote be included.
Following the meeting, McDermott agreed with Hinojosa and others that the county could not provide similar services to the city's residents with budgeting only $400,000.
McDermott said taxpayers' county tax rate may go up a bit as a result, but the city portion of their tax bill should go down.
As for a potential loss of services, McDermott said he would make sure the county produces health services for the city.
"You can put me on the record on that," he said.