Margaret Provost-Fyfe, Oak Park’s director of the Department of Public Health, retired at the end of last year, following a 30-year tenure with the village, and the position could remain vacant for much of the remainder of the year.
The departure comes after several months of budget meetings of the village’s Finance Committee that sought to potentially eliminate the Public Health Department and send its responsibilities to the county government. Oak Park is one of the few municipalities in Cook County that maintains its own public health department.
Village spokesman David Powers said Provost-Fyfe’s responsibilities will be assumed by Deputy Village Manager Lisa Shelley until the position is filled – but that could be months.
Powers said the village is expected to leave the position vacant until it begins its discussion of the 2016 budget in June or July.
The Oak Park Department of Public Health has been under the microscope over the last year, with elected officials calling on Provost-Fyfe to justify the cost of the department.
Provost-Fyfe, who could not be reached for comment for this story, told Finance Committee members last July that the village budgeted $798,519 in general funds in fiscal year 2013. The department also received $317,356 that year in various grants and raised $138,392 in fees from restaurant inspections and animal licensing, among others.
Provost-Fyfe argued to budget hawks that grants and fees cover a large portion of the cost of the department and sending the work back to the county would result in poorer service.
Although some elected officials, particularly Village President Anan Abu-Taleb, have advocated for cutting the department or reducing some of its responsibilities, Powers said he was unaware of any decision by the village to remove or change the health director position. At the time of her departure, Provost-Fyfe earned $93,822 annually, Powers said.
The position oversees health service inspections of restaurants, childcare facilities and responds to rodent infestations. The Public Health Department also handles animal licensing and control; issuance of birth, death and marriage certificates; maternal and child health; outbreaks of communicable diseases; and emergency preparedness for natural disasters; among other duties.
Abu-Taleb gave little indication this week whether he thinks the department’s duties should be sent to the county or whether the director position should be filled, but noted, “She’s been gone since January and the deputy village manager has been filling in, and the village didn’t fall apart and we didn’t compromise our services.”
Trustee Adam Salzman said that he is inclined to keep the Public Health Department intact because the department is largely funded by grants. Eliminating the department, he said, would have practically no impact on lowering taxes.
“We have to be intellectually honest,” Salzman said. “If terminating the department has no impact on the tax burden, then it’s appropriate to ask whether we are cutting the department for the sake of symbolism or is this really going to have a positive policy impact?”
Salzman suggested last year that the village might consider hiring a consultant to get a clearer view of whether such a cut would result in savings to taxpayers. That’s still on the table, he said this week.
Provost-Fyfe began working for the village in 1985 as a nursing supervisor. She was named acting public health director in January 2008 and full director in September 2009, according to the village.