Anoka County has turned away $1 million-plus in aid from the Statewide Health Improvement Program, baffling state officials who say no county ever has declined SHIP grants used to fight child obesity, promote physical activity and decrease exposure to second-hand smoke.
The county was due to receive between $1 million and $1.375 million over two years, deputy state health Commissioner Jim Koppel said Thursday. The county received a total of $800,035 in SHIP grants over the past two years, using some funds to create low-calorie snack menus that benefited 16,000 elementary-school students.
But County Board chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah, who chairs the Human Services Committee that voted 2-1 not to apply for a SHIP grant, said the money is targeted primarily to print brochures, establish community gardens and provide constituents with pedometers.
"It's not a wise use of taxpayers' resources," said Sivarajah, a fiscal conservative who is running for the congressional seat Michele Bachmann will vacate at the end of next year.
"This particular grant doesn't pay for programming or equipment," Sivarajah said. "It pays for developing policy. Spending millions of dollars on printing brochures does not cause a person to eat less, exercise more or take care of themselves. There's no measurable outcome."
Koppel disagreed, saying the program systematically helps people develop lifelong health habits while creating site-wellness programs. He said Anoka County has "among the highest, if not the highest, smoking rates in the state" and hopes the county will reconsider its stance.
Koppel cautioned that the county's decision not to apply for aid "isn't saving anybody money. If Anoka County doesn't want it, the money will be designated elsewhere throughout the state."
Grants aid wellness programs
Over its three-year existence, the SHIP program has issued grants to 55 counties and the Leech Lake tribe. The state Health Department counts among SHIP's accomplishments helping employees from more than 900 businesses benefit from wellness programs. Health department officials say that SHIP, which encourages developing trails and maintaining sidewalks, also has given more than 140,000 students from 200 schools opportunities to walk to school.
All 24 elementary schools in the Anoka-Hennepin School District offer SHIP's "Celebration Snack Menu" that emphasizes healthful, low-cost treats. Last year, SHIP money was used to help seven Anoka-Hennepin schools create Safe Routes to School programs and to provide smoking cessation materials to more than 200 students from Anoka area colleges.
But at least one Anoka County resident, Tom Todd, 64, of Blaine, told the County Board that the Health Department was asking the county to "go far beyond the scope of what a county should do." Todd said he told Commissioner Robyn West that he found it "inappropriate" that a SHIP survey asked so many "detailed" personal questions concerning his health.
West is not on the county's Human Services committee, but is an influential member of the board's conservative majority.
"It's a sad day when we turn down SHIP money after being asked to reach out to communities to create opportunities to improve public health," said Jim Kordiak, the county's longest-standing commissioner. Kordiak was the Human Services Committee member who voted in favor of applying for the grant.
"I guess we're no longer the state's partner in these health care decisions," Kordiak said. "We've damaged our relationship with our partners in human services. I'm sorry this might go away. It's not a responsible decision."
Sivarajah says a commissioner who feels strongly about the issue still can bring the matter to the board. None has.
"There isn't a lot of discussion," Kordiak said.