A $128,000 proposal by the Erie County Health Department to add a gym to the sixth floor of the Rath Building is on hold, Health Commissioner Dr. Anthony J. Billittier IV conceded Friday.
The decision to pull the proposal came only two days after a Buffalo News story revealing the county's plan sparked public outcry and uneasiness from State Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, through whose office the initial grant was awarded.
"It's unfortunate, I thought this was a great idea, and I still do," Billittier said.
"I understand the perception of this. . . . people have to pay for a health club and here we have to give one to 'overpaid county employees.' But my job is to keep county employees healthy. That's what major businesses do."
He said the grant to "promote wellness" in the county came under a "member item" from Rath in 2001. After a plan was developed then, the county had to shelve it when it ran into budgetary constraints.
Last May, it learned from the state Health Department that the funds were still available. That's when Billittier's staff went to work devising a plan for the exercise center, which was to include not just gym equipment but also fitness and nutrition education, Billittier said.
The county apparently scuttled the plan when Rath expressed reservations about using the money to finance a gym for county employees. Rath was unavailable to comment Friday night.
Meanwhile, Billittier said the county also intends to find alternative options for using the grant. Since it must be used to promote wellness in the county's workforce, nutrition workshops and yoga and pilates exercise sessions are among the possibilities.
"My staff will modify the current work plan and contract sent to us by the state Department of Health to a plan with which Senator Rath can agree," Billittier said.
Still, Billittier says even though the gym will not be done with public funds, he hopes to seek "alternative non-public funding options" to develop it. He believes promoting healthier employee lifestyles through exercise and nutrition programs would pay dividends in the long-term by saving money on health-care costs and prescription drugs. Billittier said studies of wellness programs in private business show they yield a long-term return of about $3.50 for every dollar spent. Those savings are realized through a reduction in sick time and other health-care costs and also increased productivity, he said.
"People keep saying the county needs to be run like a business," Billittier said.
According to an employee profile of Erie County workers that was compiled last year by Blue Cross Blue Shield, about 64 percent were classified as overweight or obese as compared to a 57 percent average in Western New York.
In 2005, Erie County employee costs were $28 million for prescription medication and $65 million for health care. About $52 million alone was spent on 15 percent of the unhealthiest county employees.