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Commissioners approve new bonuses to help recruit environmental health specialists

SALISBURY — The Rowan County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday took a step they hope will fix a problem that has developed in the Environmental Health Department.

The Board of Commissioners approved a request from the department for $257,935 in bonuses and restructuring funds, some of which will be offered to recruit new environmental health specialists. With the additional bonuses, the department says it will be better able to attract qualified applicants to fill several long-standing vacancies. 

And commissioners approved the bonuses in an effort to shore up a department that has been operating on far less than a full staff for numerous months.

“They’ve been operating with a skeleton crew,” said Rowan County Board of Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds. “Now we’re in a position where we are weeks and weeks and weeks behind … We need to set up the department to succeed.” 

The environmental health department’s problems developed when a longtime health specialist retired and a hiring decision on his replacement didn’t pan out as expected.

The Environmental Health Department, which falls under the Health Department, is tasked with inspecting restaurants and lodging as well as properties that are planning to install septic systems. Since the Environmental Health Department has been operating with a reduced crew, it has fallen behind on septic tank inspections. During the meeting, Environmental Health Supervisor Adrian Pruett said that the wait time for inspections is currently 8-10 weeks. 

Commissioners say they are concerned such a long wait time could stymie developments in the county. Potential property developers could be scared away from buying and constructing on property if they know that the environmental health department is backed up for several months. 

Commissioner Jim Greene said he hopeful that the measure approved Tuesday will prevent Rowan County from having a negative stigma among entrepreneurs and builders.

“We don’t want to be stuck with a reputation as a place where developers don’t want to go,” Edds said.

With the newfound bonuses, the environmental health department hopes to fill multiple existing vacancies and restructure the positions of the department. Of the $257,935 approved, $171,738 is earmarked for the on-site program and $86,197 is designated for the food and lodging division.

The environmental health department has struggled to fill these positions for several reasons. One is the lack of qualified applicants.

“The applicant pool is pretty small,” Pruett said. “Most counties do have job openings at this time. Soil scientists like me are a dying breed.”

The Rowan County Board of Commissioners previously approved additional money that allowed the department to offer a $5,000 bonus to potential applicants. However, that bonus only attracted applicants that lacked authorization to be classified as a specialist, limiting their ability to perform inspections. By ramping up the bonuses being offered, Rowan County hopes to recruit specialists who are ready to perform much needed inspections immediately.

“We are looking to bring in people who are already authorized,” said Public Health Director Nina Oliver. “Those that are authorized are looking for higher salaries.”

The approved additional bonus money will make Rowan County one of the highest-paying for environmental health specialists. The structuring of the bonuses is also intended to prevent other counties from poaching local specialists. Hired environmental health specialists will receive a $15,000 bonus upon being hired and an additional $10,000 after they’ve completed their first year.

“Other counties have been poaching our talent,” Edds said. “As (commissioner) Judy Klusman said last week, we’ve had wolves stealing our sheep.”

The funding for the approved bonuses will come from the state’s Medicaid cost settlement — money the Rowan County Health Department receives for providing Medicaid services.

The environmental health department also requested and received approval for the creation of a new office assistant position who will help with day-to-day operations.

Along with approving the request, the Rowan County commissioners asked County Manager Aaron Church to put together a presentation featuring options under the existing law on how the health board can be managed in the future. The commissioners will revisit these options at their next meeting in September.

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