Community members wearing t-shirts reading “Public Health Saves Lives” packed an administrative building in Ottawa County, Michigan, Tuesday night to support the county’s embattled Health Department.
Inside, the county’s board of commissioners, dominated by a group of ultra conservatives, voted to cut the department’s budget by $2.1 million—against pleas from public health officials and community members.
Adeline Hambley, Health Officer at the county’s Department of Public Health, said last week that the cuts would result in the shuttering of food programs for low-income families, vaccine programs, suicide prevention programs, dental care for uninsured children, programs for migrants, communicable disease prevention, addiction resources, and sexually-transmitted disease services. Funding for two of the county’s five epidemiologists would also be eliminated.
John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official hired as county administrator by the board of commissioners, initially proposed an annual budget of $2.5 million, a cut of 63 percent, including “discontinuing all COVID-related grants.” Gibbs said the cuts were “returning to pre-COVID budget levels.”
The health department said Gibbs’ budget did not account for chronic underfunding, and estimated they would be forced to close down within weeks. The county then proposed a new budget of $4.3 million—still more than $2 million less than the previous funding.
In a packed public comment session, 64 people signed up to speak about the controversial proposal to gut the public health budget, many pleading with the commissioners to reconsider. Some cried, others yelled. Many described themselves as pro-life, Christian or conservative, just like the commissioners.
Janine Chittenden, a nurse who has worked in the county for four decades, begged the commissioners to be “compassionate, not vengeful.”
“My biggest concern right now with the health department budget is the defining of the nutrition program,” Chittenden said. “What would Jesus have done? He told us to feed the poor.”
Dr. Ruth Lowry, a local hospice chaplain, told the board the community was “in grief.”
“We are not honoring each other. And what this body has done and is proposing to do with the department of public health is obscene,” Lowry said.
The vast majority of speakers spoke in support of the health department. Some, however, supported the Ottawa Impact commissioner’s budget and declared that “Jesus is lord of Ottawa County.”
Christi Meppelink, a member of the executive committee of the Ottawa County Republican Party (along with all the Ottawa Impact commissioners) pushed back on claims the six commissioners were “draconian.”
“What was actually draconian were the Health Department shutdowns, shuttering of businesses, ridiculous contact-tracing, ineffective mask mandates on our children causing them to fall two years behind … and locking free citizens in their homes,” Meppelink said, “Let’s get back to living life in a county where freedom rings and taxpayers aren’t overburdened.”
The vote to gut the health budget was the latest move by six far-right candidates affiliated with “Ottawa Impact,” who won a majority on the county commissioner’s board in August 2022. Since then, they have fired top county officials, installed a former Trump administration official and MAGA loyalist as the county administrator, shuttered the county’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion Office, and changed the county motto from “Where You Belong” to “Where Freedom Rings.”
Since the board’s first meeting on Jan. 3, 2023, they have taken particular aim at the county’s Department of Public Health, trying to remove Hambley as Health Officer and cut millions from the department budget. Hambley filed a lawsuit against the board members, saying they were attempting to fire her without “just cause.” She was granted an injunction, allowing her to continue working while the case makes its way through an appeal court.
Hambley said during public comment that she has been shut out of discussions about the health department budget since warning the commissioners of the consequences of cuts.
“No budget can sustain a 50% cut in funding and staff and maintain programs at existing levels,” Hambley said during the meeting, speaking from the floor. “So even though you don’t want to say it out loud, you are, in fact, cutting services to children and families through this action.”
The board’s current chairman, local parent and businessman Joe Moss, founded Ottawa Impact after sparring with the board of commissioners over COVID mandates. Libertas Christian School, a private religious school where Moss is a director and treasurer, was shut down by the local health authority in October 2020 for allegedly failing to follow COVID guidelines or cooperate with contact tracing.
After filing an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Department of Public Health over mask mandates, Moss founded Ottawa Impact and worked to recruit candidates aligned on a set of conservative religious and political values. The final group unseated seven incumbent Republicans, and tilted the board’s politics far to the right.
Tom Neiboer, a food inspector with the Department of Health, described the Ottawa Impact board member’s hostility to the department as retribution for pandemic politics.
“All this because we tried to get you to act with a little compassion and empathy during a pandemic that killed one million Americans,” Neiboer testified during the public comment session. “Well, you did it. You have your revenge. Now we must all live with the consequences of your choices. We at the county will do our level best to continue serving this county, but it will be difficult without the resources to do so.”