Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

The Impact of the Economic Downturn on Environmental Health Services and Professionals in North Carolina

Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

The Impact of the Economic Downturn on Environmental Health Services and Professionals in North Carolina

Article excerpt

Introduction

North Carolina, like other states, is grappling with historic budget deficits due to the current recession. North Carolina's unemployment was 10.6% in 2010, higher than the national rate of 9.6% (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [USBLS], 2011a). County budgets for budget year (BY) 2010-2011 on average have seen an $8 million decrease compared to BY 2008-2009 (North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, 2010). The resulting economic conditions are forcing a shift in financial practices that may have a significant impact on how businesses and governments are run, including local environmental health departments (EHD) (Moore, Coddington, & Byrne, 2009). Over the past 10 years, many EHD nationwide have seen little or no increase in their budgets, even as national and state economies grew (Resnick, Zablotsky, & Burke, 2009). Nationally, local public health agencies obtain an average of 44% of their funding from local government dollars, with 30% coming from the state government, 19% from fees, and 3% from direct federal dollars (Mays et al., 2004).

The current economic recession raises serious questions about the capacity of local EHD to fulfill state-mandated tasks while maintaining a competent workforce. Are counties raising permit fees to offset reductions in budgets? Have EHD reduced staff, benefits, or pay to meet budget cuts? Are staff being cross-trained in other program areas to offset loss of positions? What is the impact to the private environmental sector compared to public environmental health (EH) professionals? Information about these questions was pursued using data from the North Carolina Environmental Health Supervisors Association (NCEHSA) biannual fee survey and from data collected on the select counties for BY 2006-2007, BY 2008-2009, and BY 2010-2011 (NCEHSA, 2009). Additionally, a comparison of economic indicators was included in the analysis using the NCEHSA economic survey from 2009 and the survey of 2011, along with data from UNC Chapel Hill School of Government annual salary surveys for BY 2006-2007 and BY 2010-2011 (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government [UNCCH], 2011).

Prior research on EH capacity focused on several aspects including salaries, benefits, funding of EH programs, retention of staff, and the impact of retirement. These studies included a nationwide survey of the status of EH professionals and a study on the protection of a skilled EH workforce (National Environmental Health Association, 2002; Resnick, Zablotsky, Janus, Maggy, & Burke, 2009). Our research utilized information specific to North Carolina in an attempt to understand the impact of the year 2008 economic downturn on EH professionals statewide. A concern in our research has been the fact that local EHD are often the first responders to EH threats, bioterrorism threats, and other disasters, and that continued budget cuts to local programs may compromise the ability of these departments to respond to current and emerging EH issues.

Methods

A survey of 24 selected counties from across North Carolina was used to compare fees for services for BY 2006-2007 and BY 2010-2011 using the biannual NCEHSA data. More specifically, fee data included onsite wastewater system (OSW) improvement permits, new well permits, and seasonal swimming pool permits. Additionally, data on EHD staffing levels, pay, and benefits were obtained and analyzed using the NCEHSA economic survey for 2009 and 2011. Public sector fees and staffing levels were compared to private entities that perform similar services. The counties were selected based on participation in both fee and economic surveys. Data from the private sector were obtained from firms that were randomly chosen from the members list of the North Carolina Board for Licensing of Soil Scientists (NCBLSS, 2011). Survey questions for the private sector were constructed to obtain information about changes in fees, changes in staffing levels, and changes in the duties of existing staff. …

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