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Oak Creek — The city is considering merging with South Milwaukee’s health department and is looking to have a third party conduct a study of the two departments to determine if it would be beneficial.

The Oak Creek Health Department has been in limbo for the last nine months with no full-time public health administrator.  During the vacancy, South Milwaukee Public Health Administrator Jacqueline Ove has taken an interim position for Oak Creek.

At a special meeting Dec. 14, the city’s board of health voted to have the Public Policy Forum – a private, non-profit, independent research organization – conduct a three-month study to determine if sharing services between the two municipalities on a more long-term basis would be feasible.  This measure was later approved by both the Oak Creek and South Milwaukee common councils.

The study, which is expected to start sometime in January, would have the Public Policy Forum talk with both health boards in South Milwaukee and Oak Creek as well as members of staff every other week. The report would then be brought to the common council, if warranted.

Opportunity explored

“We want to look at what the realistic opportunities are,” said Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi.

He added he is a big supporter of the health department and this study will help the city to decide how best to move forward.  He said he understands the “tension” within a department that doesn’t have a permanent leader in place and hopes to remedy that soon.

South Milwaukee Mayor Erik Brooks said he has been having discussions with Scaffidi since last summer regarding the possibility.

From his standpoint, when every community provides service a different way, the arrangement of having two departments working independently of each other is not sustainable.

“I’m excited about this opportunity,” Brooks said.  “I’m hopeful.”

Service focus

City Administrator Andrew Vickers said this really isn’t a financial move but is based more on service delivery.  He stressed this is just a study to see what direction makes the most sense for Oak Creek.

“This is a deliberate approach that I think we should take,” Vickers said. “But this is not endorsing (the idea) we’re moving to shared services.”

Vickers did say it’s “very likely” some services will be merged, but possibly not the departments as a whole.

“It could be something as simple as a few shared services,” Scaffidi added.

Health board member and Alderman Steve Kurkowski said the city has to be responsible to the taxpayers and this will help them do that.

“I would support something like this just to see where it’s going to go,” Kurkowski said.

Public input

Responsibility to taxpayers is more than financial. Oak Creek Health Department Public Health Specialist Ashley Palen stressed getting some community input on the potential merger.

Scaffidi said residents would have a chance to offer thoughts when the report was brought to common council during the public comment period.

Furthermore, he also said if this study found that a full-scale and multi-year consolidation was the best approach, there would be more opportunities created for public input. However, he said he didn’t think that type of consolidation is what was being discussed.

If the decision following the study was to keep a separate health department in Oak Creek, Scaffidi said the personnel committee is ready to go to post the public health administrator position.

In the meantime, the city also voted to extend the memorandum of understanding between itself and South Milwaukee regarding the interim administrator position.

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