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Health task force member says do study first

Merger of health departments on hold

May 7, 2010

Ready or not, the Shorewood-Whitefish Bay Health Department will lose its director, Cindy Tomasello, to retirement at the end of June.

The department has a part-time nurse and a secretary in addition to Tomasello and needs a plan for the post-retirement period.

For three months, a task force has been working on plans for the future, but the first choice, a merger with the North Shore Health Department, has been placed on the back burner, at least for the time being. The North Shore Health Department serves Bayside, Brown Deer, Glendale, Fox Point and River Hills.

The NSHD last month gave the Shorewood village manager both the costs for interim service and a merger, but Mary Jo Baisch, the chairmen of the Shorewood-Whitefish Bay Board of Health and a task force member, said a study should be done before any recommendations are made.

A study, which would include input from residents and groups, would help determine what services the department should have and how it should be structured, she said.

"It's a question of how much you combine," Baisch said, acknowledging that local control is the root of the discussion.

Baisch said that in addition to the study she would like to talk to West Allis and Wauwatosa about services provided by their departments.

History of working together

The North Shore communities have a long history of cooperation and consolidation, the most notable being the North Shore Fire Department, which includes all seven communities. But there are also other smaller groupings for other services, such as dispatch and library services.

More than a year ago, a graduate student did a master's degree thesis on how the NSHD and the Shorewood-Whitefish Bay departments could merge.

"The thesis was really a road map on how to do it," said Whitefish Bay Trustee Kevin Buckley, who is on both the task force and Board of Health. "We started out talking about should we merge, what is in our best interest, what do we get out of it, but Shorewood (representatives) thought the first step is to determine what we really need in a health department."

Shorewood residents use about 70 percent of the services provided by the department, Whitefish Bay uses about 30 percent.

The study is expected to take six to nine months.

"If that is what they want to do, they probably should have done it six or eight months ago," Tomasello said. The board would be ready, or close to it, to make a decision had the study commenced after the student's thesis was completed.

The NSHD and the Shorewood-Whitefish Bay departments have a lengthy history of creating health consortiums. The two hired a sanitarian who provides services to all their communities but Glendale, which had its own part-time sanitarian and opted out of that portion of the services.

The sanitarian, who is supervised by the NSHD director of public health, has offices in Shorewood. The two departments also have joined forces to educate young people about the dangers of tobacco use and provide other services.

"The issue, to me, is just coordination of the services," Tomasello said. "We have been working together all along."

Both 'under one roof'

The NSHD is larger, with three full-time nurses, two nurses who work 24 hours a week and two working 32 hours a week, plus a full-time secretary.

Each member community in the NSHD has a representative on its Board of Health.

Whitefish Bay Trustee Julie Siegel, who is on the task force, said she believes the driving force for Whitefish Bay will be keeping costs down while providing services.

"There is the fear that by joining with the NSHD we would lose some services," she said. "Shorewood and Whitefish Bay have different needs and different services now. Shorewood has a lot of walk-ins. All things being equal I would like to see them (NSHD and Shorewood-Whitefish Bay) under one roof."

The task force meets at 4:30 p.m. today at the Health Department, 2010 E. Shorewood Blvd., Shorewood, to discuss a study, while the Board of Health will meet immediately after to discuss plans for the short term, after Tomasello's retirement.

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