Ann Hepfer is retiring, after more than three decades with the Tuscola and Huron county health departments.

The health officer submitted her resignation to the Tuscola County Board of Commissioners on April 12. She plans to retire Sept. 30, the end of the state’s fiscal year, so her replacement can begin at the start of a new fiscal year for the department. Hepfer was thrust into the limelight more than a year ago when the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic hit the county, causing illness and death. She was the person in charge of the local response to the health issues caused by the virus and in charge of enforcing state orders concerning COVID-19.

The health department has posted the opening at numerous online sites – Indeed, MI Talent Bank, the county and the state websites as well as with the Michigan Association for Local Public Health – but the early applicants for the job were not qualified. 

District 2 Commissioner Thomas Bardwell said he talked with the Huron County Board of Commissioners chairman about the opening, and both favored continuing the shared health officer arrangement. Hepfer also encouraged that, citing cost-effectiveness for both counties.

“I think we need to review that (the shared agreement),” District 5 Commissioner Dan Grimshaw said. “I’m not sure we’ve done our county a service by having it that way.”

District 3 Commissioner Kim Vaughan said it has been a cost savings for both counties “and I think it has worked out well that way.”

Regardless, both counties want to participate in the hiring process. 

“It seems like it would be appropriate,” Bardwell said, “since we are going to have a joint (position), just to make sure that their needs are covered as well as ours.”

Information Hepfer provided to the commissioners said the health department board would pull together an executive committee to conduct the search. So far, it will include representatives from both county commissions as well as leadership from the board of health. That group will screen and interview candidates and present a finalist to the board of health. That group, which also includes representatives of both boards of commissioners, will make a final choice, which then will be sent to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for final approval.

The state has the final say because the bulk of the health department’s funding comes from the state, not from the county. 

Unlike the last time, when Hepfer was chosen, there is no internal candidate who has been groomed to succeed her.

“So it might be a challenge to find someone,” Bardwell said.

Young said that is why Hepfer has given the commissioners so much notice, because it might be difficult to fill the opening. That also is why Hepfer, who is finishing a 33-year career in public health, has indicated she’d be willing to remain in her role past Sept. 30, though her drop-dead deadline is Dec. 31 because she is moving out of the county.

“I believe we can find a health officer that is pro-business and pro-growth and still do their job,” said Vaughan, the commission’s representative on the board of health.

Bardwell wanted to know what happens after Dec. 31 if no new health officer has been hired.

“What if there is no candidate? What is the protocol at that point and who is responsible for what? Who takes over the health department?” Bardwell said.

Grimshaw said there should be a deputy who can be named an interim leader until then.

Hepfer’s information indicated that while the county commission doesn’t have the final say on the candidate chosen, it has the option of interviewing the finalists.

“Should we be worried about the selection process,” Bardwell said, “or should we just wait for it to come before us?”

“I don’t think we should worry,” Vaughan said.

Hepfer, however, sees challenges ahead.

“The next couple of years will be challenging for all of you,” she said in her resignation letter, “as you try to balance your budgets, restore programming to those most in need and perhaps still deal with the remnants of the virus. I wish you the best as you have very difficult decisions to make.”