Officials 'disappointed' as health officer resigns over budget cuts

The Baltimore Sun

Less than two months after presenting an ambitious program to expand mental health and substance abuse recovery programs, Harford County's health officer has resigned, reportedly stressing his disappointment with nearly $2 million in cuts to his agency's budget.

In a letter to the County Council, which has not been made public, Dr. Andrew Bernstein expressed concerns with the state funding cuts, as well as the county's inability to make up the difference, officials said. Bernstein, whose department is funded through the state and county resources, left the county's employ, effective Jan. 2, and has not been available for comment.

Council president Billy Boniface announced the resignation Tuesday, praising Bernstein's foresight and remarkable efforts during a nearly four-year tenure.

Susan Kelly, deputy director of the agency, will likely become acting director until a replacement is hired, Boniface said.

"Dr. Bernstein has made invaluable contributions and has been a tremendous advocate for public health, especially the underserved population," Kelly said. "We all owe him a debt of gratitude for elevating health care in the county and challenging the staff to excellence."

Given the present economy and the expectation of a decrease in revenues tied to the slumping housing market, the county cannot make up for budget shortfalls created by the state, Boniface said.

Council members expressed dismay at Bernstein's abrupt departure and unwillingness to compromise.

"I don't care what office you hold, you can't run roughshod over the county, and that's what his letter did," said Councilman Dion Guthrie. "If he couldn't get the county to make up for the $1.7 million cut, he threatened that he would resign. What if all our department heads sent us letters like that?"

Four years ago, Guthrie was on the committee that recommended hiring Bernstein.

Guthrie said Bernstein asked that the county make up the $1.7 million shortfall in the Health Department budget and that the county implement a cost of living increase in his annual salary.

Council members called Bernstein's action premature, given that the county has yet to start its fiscal 2009 budget process.

"No one can be assured what the budget will be," said Councilman James V. McMahan. "It is as though he has said 'I am going to take my ball and go home.' I am disappointed in our health officer."

A search committee will begin the task of finding Bernstein's replacement as soon as possible, Boniface said.

"Despite everyone's disappointment with the resignation, Billy Boniface assured me that the county truly supports us and will continue to advocate for us," Kelly said. "Dr. Bernstein told me that he is proud that he has left the department in better shape than when he arrived. Now we have to move forward and look ahead."

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