Published March 31, 2021


LYNNFIELD — The town is exploring the possibility of forming a regionalized Health Department with neighboring Reading.

Town Administrator Rob Dolan discussed a health regionalization grant application during a joint Select Board and Board of Health meeting last week. Health Director Kristin McRae is currently on leave.

Dolan stressed that he is not proposing to regionalize the town’s Health Department. He said the purpose of the joint of meeting was to have the two boards give him the go-ahead to submit the application to the state.

“It would just explore the possibility of creating a two to three town health collaborative,” said Dolan. “We are simply asking the Board of Health and the Select Board to allow us to do our due diligence to see if we can create a better model for taxpayers. These departments have strengths and some weaknesses.”

Reading Town Manager Bob LeLacheur agreed.

“We are not here because the grant exists,” said LeLacheur. “We certainly want to pursue it. We feel that Reading and Lynnfield have a nice opportunity to eventually put a Health Department together. We are in a position to be exploring it.”

Dolan said he believes in regionalizing services when it is appropriate for different communities.

“We have to study all of the opportunities to form a collaborative whose goal is not to save money, but to provide a more sustainable model that is in the best interest for taxpayers,” said Dolan.

Dolan recalled that Melrose and Wakefield currently have a regional health director, and said Reading was previously part of that health collaborative. He said the Massachusetts Department of Public Health released grant applications for cities and towns that are interested in regionalizing health departments.

“There is a crisis in health directors right now due to burnout and with people finding better options in the health sciences field,” said Dolan. “It’s super hard to find health directors.”

Reading Assistant Town Manager Jean Delios gave an overview of the Public Health Shared Services Program grant application, which is due on April 1. She said the two towns could be awarded up to $300,000 for a three-year period, but she believes both towns would receive “a little bit less.”

“The grant is a multi-year commitment of funds from the state,” said Delios. “The core of what the state is looking for is a cross jurisdiction model that would allow the sharing of resources. We can do that without a grant, but with the grant, we can do a lot more.”

Delios said the grant would allow both towns to “enhance the delivery of public health services.”

“Public health is a field that is changing every day,” said Delios. “There is an opportunity to look at our strengths and weaknesses, and there is a real chance to improve and provide more public health services if the towns agree to collaborate.”

Delios envisioned both towns will be able to hire a health director as well as outsource different positions.

LeLacheur noted that officials from both communities are waiting to receive more information from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health about whether the grant can be awarded to two communities or three.

“It will be up to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to encourage us to add a third community or allow two,” said LeLacheur, “It will be in their hands.”

Support, questions remain

Select Board member Phil Crawford expressed his support for pursuing the grant.

“I think it is a great opportunity for the town to look into,” said Crawford. “We want to make sure it’s a good fit. We are at a crossroads right now, so it is a good time to look at.”

Board of Health Chairman Rocco Iocco said the grant opportunity is worth exploring.

“We certainly have our challenges,” said Iocco. “Every board of health in the state has their own challenges, and I think the pandemic has exacerbated some of the issues that we have. I think the fit has to be correct and the loss of control is a bit of a concern, particularly in regards to septic systems in Lynnfield. That is a big part of our work load.”

Board of Health member Gail McCausland asked if the grant application will specify how the collaboration process would work.

“What the state is looking for at this point is an outline,” said Delios. “A formalized work plan will be developed after the grants are awarded. We have a general idea of how to go at it, and the state is okay with that. But if we are successful, there will be additional detailed work plans that will be developed.”

In response to a question from McCausland, Delios said officials from both towns have had general discussions about how services would be shared.

Dolan noted that both communities should still be discussing the regionalized opportunity even if there wasn’t a grant available for the towns to pursue. He proposed that both towns form small working groups in order to iron out the details. He said a Board of Health member would serve on the Lynnfield group.

McCausland asked what the two towns are committing to if the communities are awarded the grant.

“We are committed to nothing,” said Dolan. “We could reject it. We are submitting it by April 1 and will then begin investigating it.”

After the discussion, the Select Board and Board of Health authorized Dolan to submit the grant application to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.