Public health officer could become a paid position in Fayetteville

Marti Sharkey, the city’s public health officer, speaks during a City Council agenda-setting session in May / Fayetteville Government Channel

Members of the city’s Board of Health on Friday discussed the possibility of making the public health officer a paid position in Fayetteville.

Marti Sharkey was appointed to the volunteer position about a month after the board was revived by the City Council in June 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the reestablishment, the council included a one-time $50,000 budget adjustment to support the board’s duties, including staffing and supplies.

Sharkey said at the time, she opted not to take a salary in order to preserve funds to fight the virus.

Mayor Lioneld Jordan said of that money, just over $13,000 has been spent, most of which was used to purchase a special, low-temperature freezer to store COVID-19 vaccine doses.

In a letter sent last week to Jordan, Sharkey said the time has come to request more funding for the board, including enough to pay a full-time salary to the public health officer position.

Members of the Board of Health agreed.

“My guess is nobody knew 16 months ago how this was going to snowball,” said Hershey Garner, who serves as chair of the board. “I thought we would be out of business by the fall.”

New virus cases began declining in February, but the delta variant has led to a resurgence, particularly in states like Arkansas where vaccination rates are lagging.

Active cases in Arkansas have increased 384% over the last 30 days. The state reported 15,491 active cases on on July 27, compared to 3,199 a month ago. That number also represents a 132% increase over active cases this same time last year.

The state is currently ranked 48th in the country with just 36% of the population being fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times national vaccine tracker.

Sharkey, who recused herself from the board’s discussion last week, said in her letter she dedicates an average of 40 hours per week to her role as the city’s public health officer.

She estimated spending one to two hours daily reviewing the latest science and analyzing local data.

Aside from Board of Health meetings, Sharkey said she attends four hour-long meetings each week, including two with the Northwest Arkansas Council, one with the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, and one with the state Health Department. Each of those meetings, she said, require up to an hour of preparation.

Other regular duties, she said, include answering phone calls, emails and texts from local constituents, interviews with local media, and posting local information on social media.

Aside from those standing operational requirements, Sharkey said she’s helped develop a reopening plan for the Fayetteville Public Library, prepared presentations for city departments and other local groups, worked at vaccine clinics, and helped individuals secure vaccine appointments.

Sharkey said she’d like to continue in the role, and suggested using a portion of the $17.9 million the city is expected to receive from the American Rescue Plan to help pay for a salary.

Other funding, she said, will be needed to support local public health endeavors, including media campaigns, outreach, testing, and supplies.

“Public health has been underfunded for decades, which is one of the reasons that they response to the pandemic has struggled,” Sharkey wrote. “We have the opportunity and funding now available to remedy this.”

Jordan said he supports the idea, and recommended that the city contract with the public health officer for one year.

Anything formal would need to be approved by the City Council.

The board also discussed whether Sharkey could be paid for the work she’s already provided.

“I don’t want it to be perceived that the city took advantage of (Sharkey’s) generosity,” said board member Huda Sharaf.

City Attorney Kit Williams said compensating Sharkey for previous services could be complicated.

State law prohibits a city from paying someone without a contract in place, Williams wrote in a July 23 memo. Additionally, the state only authorizes one municipal citizen committee to be eligible for compensation – the Planning Commission.

In order to pay Sharkey for past work, the City Council would need to receive evidence that the city, the board, or citizens benefitted in a particular dollar amount from her services. That evidence, Williams said, would need to be documented as specifically as possible – much more than the list of things Sharkey provided in her letter to the mayor.

If that evidence is provided, then the council should consider it, Williams said.

The board will discuss specifics of paying for the position, including a job scope, at its next meeting on Wednesday, July 28.