State health officials say proposed tax limitation initiatives could devastate immunization programs, water quality monitoring, air pollution control, food protection and AIDS education.

But tax initiative leader Greg Beesley responded that the officials "brought up nit-picky things" and that health operations would survive just fine if officials would cut out waste he says has been discovered in audits.The Utah Health Crisis committee, made up of administrators and unpaid board of health members from around Utah, held a press conference in Salt Lake Friday to inform the public of what it called "misleading and erroneous information" being expounded by proponents of the tax initiatives.

"We believe that the advocates of the tax rollback initiatives are waging a campaign of distortion, false promises and negativism," said Gordon B. James, vice chairman of the Weber-Morgan Board of Health. "They appeal to everyone's natural desire to cut taxes, but they omit and refuse to acknowledge the pain that these cuts would lead to in terms of loss of public services."

James, a university professor, said the Weber-Morgan Health Department alone will lose 25 percent of its staff and numerous programs if the initiatives pass.

"These losses will likely lead to increased infant mortality, decreased immunization levels, decreased restaurant sanitation and numerous other negative impacts on the health status of our county," he said.

Beesley, chairman of the Utah Tax Limitation Coalition, said the governor has an audit showing waste in health operations. "Instead of bringing up the nit-picky things they did, if they would just follow the suggestions in that audit, they would be just fine."

But gloom and doom sentiments were expressed by chairpersons of Salt Lake City-County, Southeast District, Bear River, Southwest and Utah County boards of health.

For example, Georgia Hamblin, chairwoman of the Southeast District Board of Health, said reductions would translate into "additional health risk" not only for the residents, but for the tourists to southeastern Utah.

"The combination of state and county cuts would mean elimination of staff, which cannot presently keep pace with the demand for services," the realtor added.

Should the tax initiatives pass, the Bear River Health Department will likely double fees to cover costs.

"This would create additional burdens for families having difficulties meeting the increased charges made necessary by the vaccine surcharges," said Dale Nelson, board chairman.

The university professor said 8 percent to 10 percent of Utahns served by the Bear River Health Department now express an inability to pay for life-saving vaccines. Many are going to Idaho to get the shots.

One speaker at the press conference admonished Utahns to learn from the mistakes of the past.

"As a physician who was practicing in California when that state passed Proposition 13, I can state that the results have been disastrous," said Dr. Charles Duffy, chairman, Southwest District Board of Health. "Some counties are bankrupt, some have become wards of the state, some libraries have closed, some roads are in desperate need of repair, some schools are doubling up on classes and school transportation systems are no longer operational, and people in need of health care are being ignored."

Why? Duffy said fees have been increased to the point that only those in upper income brackets can afford them.

Expect the worst if the initiatives pass on the November ballot in Utah, he warned. "The creeping menace of AIDS could absorb all of the resources available to public health," he said.

The physician also noted that the Baby-Your-Baby program, paid for by the cigarette tax, would be dropped as would school instruction on prevention of tobacco, alcohol and drug abuse - problems plaguing an increasing number of Utah teens.

"When we in public health do our job, nothing happens, so no one notices," said Dr. Harry Gibbons, director of the Salt Lake City-County Health Department. "Literally, there is no contaminated water, there is no food poisoning, there are few infectious disease outbreaks and the air is cleaner."

That will likely change, committee members stressed, if the initiatives pass. Then health departments will implement emergency response programs, rather than those designed to promote and protect the health of Utah citizens.