CHESHIRE — The Town Council voted to leave Chesprocott Health District Tuesday night after weeks of discussions and controversy that became a major issue in the just-completed municipal elections.
The vote, 6-3, fell mostly along party lines, although Republican David Veleber did join Democrats Peter Talbot and Jim Jinks in opposing the move. A second 6-3 vote approved the Town’s move to join South Central Health District, based in Southington. That move would be effective June 30, 2024, the beginning of the next fiscal year.
The results of the recent election, where Democrats won four of five at-large seats and two of four district seats, seemed to suggest that the controversial decision would potentially be left to the new Council, set to be sworn in early next month. However, Chair Tim Slocum, who did retain his at-large seat, offered a forceful argument that it was not a decision based on any political considerations, but rather on doing, with a final act, what is ultimately in the best interests of the town.
Outgoing Republican Council member David Borowy introduced a substitute motion that would have established a five-member “study committee” to continue looking at the issue, but it failed to gain traction. Talbot also introduced a motion to table the decision, which was rejected.
Despite the large number of Chesprocott supporters present in Council chambers, Slocum opted not to re-open a public comment session. He said rather that the Council had already performed its “due diligence” on the matter over roughly the course of a year. Information-gathering visits with South Central Director Susan Lonczak on Oct. 30 and Chesprocott Director Maura Esposito on Nov. 8, further convinced Slocum and others that they were making the right decision.
When it came time for his own statement as to his reasoning, Slocum did not hold back, calling Esposito “a crummy director and a great sanitarian.”
A simple matter of fiscal prudence was the first justification offered for the move, according to councillors as well as previous statements by Town Manager Sean Kimball. With a projected per capita rate of $8.75 with South Central versus $13.15 with Chesprocott, the Town is projected to save $126,403 annually. The state average is $9.91.
Esposito had presented the Council with budget models showing a lower per capita of $12.15 for Chesprocott moving forward, but suggested that personnel cuts would likely accompany that move.
Personnel issues at Chesprocott also emerged as a problem area, per councillors, who reportedly received several letters on the subject.
One letter submitted to the Council was from Aria Swan, a registered nurse who now works at South Central. She detailed her own experiences on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, working full-time hours though technically “part-time” staff at Chesprocott. Swan related that she asked about the possibility of health insurance for herself and her family, but was denied by Esposito. This led her to taking a job at South Central, which did offer the insurance.
“I did not leave as a disgruntled employee as some would like to portray. I was an employee that did not want to leave. I was shocked to say the least when I found out they hired a full time RN and kept the 10-hour nurse that I was told would need to be terminated,” Swan wrote.
In the letter, Swan also suggested councillors consider the “20-plus employees who have left Chesprocott over the past two, three years.”
Republican Sylvia Nichols, who failed in her re-election bid after 13 years on the Council, also alluded to “internal findings which could not be made public,” but which figured in her own analysis.
At the Nov. 8 meeting between the Council and Chesprocott, Esposito admitted that there were currently ongoing personnel issues, and declined to comment further for legal reasons.
Councillor Don Walsh raised the question of how the issue of changing health districts had become such a political hot-button issue, laying out a series of arguments against what he termed “misinformation.” In criticizing the politics surrounding the topic, he mentioned that a political sign urging people “Vote Democrat to Save Chesprocott” had been posted outside Chesprocott’s Highland Avenue headquarters on Election Day. Esposito apologized for that on Nov. 8, and said it had been a mistake.
Walsh and others further pointed to the $1.2 million reserve — which Wolcott Board Rep Maria Benvenuto said came from investing in certificates of deposit during the pandemic — as a “blatant disregard for taxpayers’ dollars.”
“Complaints, excessive fees and charges,” were cited by outgoing Republican Sandy Pavano as well, who said, “I’m going to vote on what’s best for the taxpayers.”
John Milone, another outgoing Republican, stated that his support for leaving Chesprocott was based on trusting the judgment of Town staff and on his own deliberations and experience. He said it was “obvious that South Central (is) operationally more stable and in a better position to support Cheshire.”
Another point of contention, per some Councillors, was that when Kimball was first appointed to the Chesprocott Board of Directors last year, he was, in Slocum’s words, “stonewalled,” despite having expertise with the kinds of financial issues Chesprocott was facing. It was only in July of 2023 that an accountant was brought in to examine the books, per Esposito.
Nichols called for the presence of a Chief Operating Officer such as Kimball to “sit on the governing board and provide tight oversight.”
In his remarks, Talbot called the decision “reckless (and) ill-timed and creates unnecessary drama for far too many people.” He apologized to the other towns affected, including Southington and Plainville. “I seriously wonder what the motivating factor is here," he stated.
Talbot vowed to revisit the issue when the next Council is sworn in next month.