Georgia public health director wants staff furloughs cut from plan

Georgia’s public health director is asking Senate budget writers to eliminate possible staff furloughs and reduce cuts to county health departments as her agency battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health, made the request Wednesday as the Senate continued to review proposals to reduce spending by billions of dollars because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on Georgia’s economy.

“Any furlough is difficult,” Toomey told a Senate budget subcommittee. “I don’t see state government as a jobs program.

“But a lot of the work we are doing in public health is not only addressing COVID but chronic disease prevention, HIV prevention, and is actually ensuring we are addressing some of the health disparities that may lead to some of the imbalances we are seeing in cases of COVID that are occurring.”

While serving as the public health face of Georgia’s fight against the coronavirus, Toomey also has had to respond to requests to cut spending 14% during the upcoming fiscal year because of an expected decline in state revenue.

Earlier this week Gov. Brian Kemp's office reported collections are off about $860 million for fiscal 2020 — which ends June 30 — and they are expected to remain down throughout fiscal 2021 as the economy slowly recovers.

Under budget plans that agencies submitted last month, more than 1,000 filled jobs would be eliminated and tens of thousands of state employees would be furloughed.

Kemp has told lawmakers to expect 11% less money in fiscal 2021, reducing the cuts somewhat.

Toomey’s agency originally proposed 12 days of furloughs — days off without pay — for staffers, including those working in infectious disease control and epidemiology.

To meet the 14% goal, the agency would also reduce grants to county health departments by almost $18 million and cut a host of other programs.

Cuts to the Department of Public Health are particularly sensitive since it has been so heavily involved in the state’s effort to fight the pandemic.

Toomey told budget writers on Wednesday that if they reduced the cuts from 14% to 11%, she would ask them to eliminate the furloughs. She also asked that the cut to county public health departments be reduced by $3.8 million.

Other agencies asked budget writers to reduce the impact of the cuts as well.

At the Department of Human Services, Commissioner Robyn Crittenden told lawmakers she hopes they’ll eliminate the planned layoffs of 33 employees and restore funding for some child support, nursing home transition and memory care programs.

Judy Fitzgerald, the commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, hopes lawmakers will restore some funding for a slew of programs up for cuts. Among them: adult addiction programs, day services for adults with developmental disabilities, and child and adolescent mental health services in local schools.

“The 3% (difference in cuts) is really going to make a big difference,” Fitzgerald told the Senate panel.

Staff writer David Wickert contributed to this article.