WHITLEY COUNTY — The health and wellness of Whitley County cannot be placed solely on the shoulders of the county’s department of health. The department often relies on the eyes and ears of the community at large to highlight areas that require its attention.
The process of reporting community hazards gives residents an active role in keeping their friends, families and neighbors safe and healthy. Oftentimes, the department is unable to address an observed hazard until there is evidence, such as a report, stating that something is in fact a detriment to health and/or the environment, said Scott Wagner, environmental health specialist for Whitley County.
Other times, Wagner added, the department can’t necessarily be an enforcer of certain laws, but can connect with agencies that do handle such concerns.
A formal report with the health department, though, is not always the best first step when the problem may be resolved by simple face-to-face communication.
“I usually tell people to talk to a neighbor first and see if you can resolve it,” Wagner said. “Most of the time it’s a neighbor-to-neighbor issue, but oftentimes people don’t know their neighbors.”
If a situation is unable to be resolved without department involvement, then the complainant is asked to submit their complaint in writing and include their name, address and contact information. Wagner also emphasized that these documents are public.
There is currently a push to allow these reporters to remain anonymous in an effort to encourage people to report hazards without fear of potential repercussions. Wagner is unsure if this will prove to be an improvement on the current process.
Despite the fact that the department currently still requires the complainant to give their name and contact information, it does not appear to be a deterrent. On average, Wagner estimated, he receives between 80 and 100 reports per year, ranging from minor concerns to potentially serious risks to public health.
“It doesn’t seem to be a problem and people aren’t having a problem coming in and fixing it,” Wagner said. “Our county is growing and there’s more and more of a population observing violations and reporting them. You get new people coming in and they file a complaint. They’re shocked this is allowed to happen.”
The increased volume of complaints over the years has kept Wagner, the only person in the department responsible for handling the reports, quite busy. Unfortunately, some of these violations don’t see quick resolutions and can drag on for months in court, spending thousands of tax dollars.
“We try to get to them as fast as we can,” Wagner said. “While enforcing the rules we have to go to court for those things…sometimes complaints of significant value may take up to a year to resolve.”
The biggest hindrance to the department’s ability to address violations are people who are set in their ways and don’t take kindly to change, Wagner said. Others, when confronted by the health department, may insist there is no problem and that all they are doing is what has always been done.
“The challenges are some people don’t want to follow the rules,” Wagner said. “They say they have always done it this way. … People don’t realize times change, things are different.”
When Wagner does encounter pushback, he utilizes concrete facts to justify the department’s response to a reported complaint.
“There’s logic and data and there’s opinion,” Wagner said. “We don’t go to a meeting and say ‘here’s my opinion,’ we say ‘here’s the data.’ You try to change people’s minds and help them understand that they’re going to have a major issue if they don’t take care of these things.”