November 30, 2021

County health director set to finally retire

Photo provided by Catherine Feuerherm

Cortland County Public Health Director Catherine Feuerherm packs up her office this week as she prepares to retire Friday after a three-decade career in public health, including 11 as public health director. She meant to retire March 16, but stayed on two extra months to help lead the county through the first phases of the coronavirus pandemic.

Catherine Feuerherm spent Tuesday in her office packing the rest of her belongings, finishing a task that was supposed to be completed two months ago — her retirement.

“I was looking forward to retirement on March 16,” she said. “When COVID started to ramp up I felt it was important to offer to stay as leadership should remain constant through a crisis. For almost three months, Lisa Perfetti and I have worked side by side to build our response and minimize the impact to the health of the county. That has been accomplished and we are now in Phase 1 of reopening. The crisis response is over. I feel this is the right time for me to go.”

Feuerherm said three reasons led to her finally retiring:

  • Continuity of leadership: It is important, especially as the county begins a phased reopening and more waves are predicted, to minimize changeover in leadership.

She couldn’t commit to staying another 18 to 24 months, and decided now was the time to go.

On Thursday the Cortland County Legislature named Perfetti, the director of community health, as the interim health director from May 23 to Aug. 23, unless another health director is named in that time.

“Lisa P. has demonstrated that she is fully capable of leading the department moving forward,” Feuerherm said. “I would not leave if I felt otherwise.”

Perfetti helped revamp the county’s emergency response plan, Feuerherm said, and knows how the county operates — making her the right candidate to lead the department while a new director is sought.

“Her strength really is planning and policy,” Feuerherm said. “It’s important that she be the decision-maker as we move forward. She’s going to be there in the long term should this come, I could not make that commitment on a personal level.”

Perfetti said she is “excited to continue to work with our excellent Health Department team, community partners and county leaders as we collectively navigate the COVID-19 response to meet the needs of the community.”

However, she would not comment on whether she is applying for the health director position.

“As of today, I am focusing on my current job duties and not yet ready to discuss my future plans,” she said.

  • Fiscal: Feuerherm is also leaving now to fiscally help the county.

“My salary was cut from the county budget after March, based on my proposed retirement,” she said. “We received additional grant funding that will cover my salary through this week. Moving forward, any further expenses are unfunded.”

  • Personal: Feuerherm said while everyone else is ready to leave the house and get back to work she is ready to go home and have downtime.

“It’s been an intense few months,” she said. “I worked 24/7 for five weeks straight and even on my days off I was constantly on calls or email. In the words of Forrest Gump — I’m pretty tired … I think I’ll go home now.”

She said leaving now is a little easier than had she left in March.

“Had I left as planned, I would have regretted that decision because I really needed to be here for my staff and planning for the county,” she said.

She also won’t have the difficulty of saying goodbye — the department has only a handful of people working there daily.

“I’ve already had the separation, if you will,” she said.

Legislators considered a resolution to hire a temporary public health adviser — Feuerherm but pulled it from the floor at its Thursday meeting and referred it back to the Health and Human Service Committee.

Feuerherm said she would have provided input on a need by-need basis regarding the virus.

“That was discussed and proposed back in the time when no one knew where this was going and what it might look like and wanted a guarantee of a backup plan when needed,” she said. “I could not commit to that at this time. I’m thinking I might like retirement.”

Feuerherm said during the county’s search for a new director it must look for someone who will advocate for the health department on all levels — local, state, even federally.

“You need a leader who continues to allow them to do their jobs, who listens to them and who helps them to continue to be successful,” she said.