Cheshire Town Council Chair Tim Slocum noted that the Council’s special meeting on Oct. 30, held at the Town of Southington’s Municipal Building, was the first in his long career in public service to take place outside of Cheshire.
The building houses Southington’s Board of Education, Planning and Zoning and Building Departments, as well as the South Central Regional Health District, which Cheshire officials are considering joining.
After leading a brief tour of the South Central offices, Director Susan Lonczak took Council members, along with other guests and several of her staffers, through a presentation that described her District’s approach to the public health mission. In it, she provided new information about the District’s capabilities and overall organization.
Following that, Lonczak addressed several key issues, which Councillor Don Walsh and others described as “misconceptions,” that had been raised during a Oct. 10 public hearing in Cheshire and in subsequent correspondence with constituents and others. At the hearing, some opponents of the move questioned whether the community would receive the same level of services as provided by their current health district, Chesprocott.
No official action was taken at the meeting. Votes on whether Cheshire will leave the Chesprocott Health District at the end of the fiscal year and join South Central will likely happen at the Council’s first post-election regular meeting, on Nov. 14.
However, what Slocum characterized as a “potentially ugly divorce” following the nearly 50-year “marriage” between Cheshire and Chesprocott may have taken another step forward.
Lonczak, who served as chief sanitarian at Chesprocott for six years, was asked by Councillor Peter Talbot about the circumstances surrounding her departure from Chesprocott for the director’s role at South Central. She replied that the job opened up with the departure of former director Shane Lockwood, who took a job in Florida, leaving a vacancy in Southington. She added that she had been at Chesprocott through "the worst of the pandemic,” working seven days a week, before the opportunity arose.
(South Central) Public Health Nurse Aria Swan, as well as Gillian VanderVliet, South Central’s Community Health Program Director, were also at Chesprocott during that time and explained at the meeting how they helped with several aspects of the pandemic response.
Since taking the job in Southington, Lonczak has addressed staffing isues, begun a digitization process, and overseen a rebranding that makes room for the possibility of Cheshire or other communities coming on board. Officials from Prospect and Wolcott have also reached out to her, she added, but those discussions were still preliminary.
The presentation highlighted those pre-existing relationships and “familiarity" with issues confronting the region generally.
Much like Chesprocott, South Central is focused on a range of public health services in its member communities of Southington, Plainville and Middlefield, which total about 65,000 residents. These services include septic, public pool, well, restaurant, and other kinds of environmental health inspections, but also emergency preparedness, prevention, and education efforts, often tailored to a specific community.
Talbot asked whether there could be a "tipping point” at which South Central grew past a “comfortable" level. Lonczak mentioned that the state Department of Public Health has encouraged “regionalization” efforts to improve efficiency, and pointed out that managing populations of 100,000 or so — which South Central would grow to be if Cheshire were to join — has worked in other Connecticut districts. She added that the greater size also makes for increased grant opportunities.
Councillor John Milone asked about the future of the Medical Reserve Corps Volunteers, who had been the subject of questioning at the last hearing regarding Chesprocott.
“If they wanted to work in the community they're from, that’s still possible?” Milone asked.
“It is,” Lonczak replied.
South Central, Lonczak explained, participates in the Capital Region MRC. This entity consists of 41 towns and 1,800 members. VanderVliet, as well as Cheshire Fire Chief Jack Casner, emphasized that volunteers can “cross lines” between districts as needed, and also said that volunteers are encouraged to volunteer and train in their own communities as much as possible.
Lonczak further clarified questions about the per capita rates which had formed some of the rationale for leaving Chesprocott. Currently, South Central charges a rate of only $6.65, as opposed to Chesprocott’s $13.15. Lonczak said she plans to increase that to $8.75 in July 2024, and keep increases thereafter to below the state average of $9.91.
Town Manager Sean Kimball used the $8.75 figure in calculating an annual savings to Cheshire of $126,403 when he presentated the proposal to leave Chesprocott to the public last month.
Lonczak admitted that Southington's ability to provide real estate, as well as some IT and Human Resources support, was key in maintaining that lower per capita rate. Kimball suggested that there would be room at Cheshire’s Town Hall for South Central to have staff, because the Human Services Department has moved to a new location.
Slocum also raised the question of the structure of the Board of Directors, stating that Chesprocott had initially been resistant to having Kimball on its board, despite the Council’s desire for a representative.
Southington Town Manager Mark Sciota argued in favor of having Town leaders on the South Central Board, saying that it was important to include “CEOs” such as a Town Manager or First Selectman, because of their expertise in running organizations.
“We’re listened to on the Board. Sometimes they disagree, but it’s vital that they look to CEOs for guidance on managerial issues,” Sciota said.
South Central’s Board currently includes Sciota and four other Southington officials, plus two from Plainville (including Town Manager Michael Paulhus) as well as Middlefield First Selectman Robert Yamartino, who serves as vice-chair.
Yamartino posited that adding Cheshire would mean diluting his vote on the Board but spoke highly of the quality of services South Central had provided his community. He recounted an incident in which Lonczak showed up to a hoarding site he “didn’t want to get within 100 yards of,” due to the smell. Though she was wearing a “sundress,” she donned a Tyvek protective suit, and entered the hazardously overcrowded property to help with the work.
Some developers in his community, he added, have complained about having to meet the health standards, but not the quality of services.