The Salt Lake County budget shortfall endangers the public health.

That's the dire warning from the Salt Lake City-County Health Department and its board. The department says it will be forced to cut down on restaurant inspections, stop inspecting public drinking water systems, halve the number of public health nurses and severely cut its immunization program. It may also eliminate a prenatal and pediatric care program for low-income county residents.And that's just the beginning, members of the Salt Lake City-County Board of Health were warned Thursday morning.

"There's not a lot of fluff or fat to be cut," said Alan Seegrist, board chairman. "It's going to cut very deep and be very severe."

Salt Lake County plans to cut the health department's operating budget by $1.77 million for 1999. More ominous, according to health department director Dr. Kathryn Vedder, is a plan to reduce the proportion of property tax revenues that go into the health fund, which will have long-term consequences.

The county has also requested lump-sum payoff of $2.28 million for construction of the recently completed Environmental Health Building, instead of letting the department pay in the planned two or three installments. "It's like having your mortgage called the next day when you've budgeted for four or five years," said Jane Reister Conard, a board member.

The board adopted a strongly worded statement about the cuts during the meeting. While it acknowledges the need to balance the budget and keep tax increases as low as possible -- with some cuts to health programs, if needed -- "the proposed cuts coupled with the lowering of the health-fund tax levy is, in our view, not reasonable and will jeopardize the community's public health system. If the health-fund tax levy is not restored to its current level, the health department will be faced with even deeper cuts and elimination of programs within two years."

According to the statement, "the tax dollar support for public health will be cut by nearly 29 percent if the Salt Lake County Commission budget proposal is adopted.

"The Board of Health understands the dilemma facing the county commission but feels obligated to inform the public of the impact that cuts of this magnitude will have on essential public health programs."

The department has plans to minimize the impact of the proposed cuts, said Vedder. It will initiate a yearlong hiring freeze, close its microbiology laboratory and noise control program, increase some fees (already up 300 percent over five years), curtail travel and continuing education for staff and eliminate positions in several divisions.

But that won't be enough, she said.

Programs are likely to be axed, including the injury prevention program, the hepatitis A vaccination project, public health nursing bureau, drinking water protection program, household hazardous waste collection days, the licensed-establishment inspection program, child day-care education and inspection and the public information office.

Other programs like school nursing, response to nuisance complaints and the septic tank and storm water programs will lose some staff.

Seegrist said the board would have to look closely at eliminating a clinic it operates with the University of Utah. The clinic, which serves many low-income and minority people, provides prenatal and pediatric care. The health department provides about $700,000 in funding, and the U. staffs the clinic, located at 3189 S. Main. That means by saving the $700,000, more than $1.5 million in services would be cut.

The health department's share of tax funds hasn't grown since 1991, despite population increases. But with those funds, "we have protected the citizens through hepatitis, salmonella, shigella, measles and pertussis outbreaks," the statement says. "We have responded to issues of drinking water contamination and illegal dumping of hazardous waste. We have identified areas in the valley where children are vulnerable to lead poisoning. We have made strides in improving one of the nation's worst childhood immunization rates along with many other accomplishments. . . .

"Grant funds cannot be used to supplant tax dollars. Therefore, an immediate and long-term impact of the budget cuts will be felt in basic public health programs, which are primarily supported by tax dollars and in many cases required by state health laws."

A public hearing on the budget proposal is set for 6:30 p.m. Friday in the Salt Lake County Commission chambers in the north building of the county complex at 2001 S. State.