County Council to study acquisition of Snohomish Health District

EVERETT — A move that could lead to the Snohomish Health District becoming part of county government was approved by the Snohomish County Council on Monday.

In its action, the County Council asked for an analysis of incorporating the public health agency into county government. The study would include whether it is feasible, what effect it might have on costs to operate the agency, and the impact on the public’s health. The request for the study was made by County Councilman Ken Klein and approved unanimously.

Snohomish Health District spokeswoman Heather Thomas said the public health agency plans to discuss the County Council request for the merger study at its Nov. 10 meeting. Staff will likely suggest that an outside consultant do the study “to make sure it’s a thorough and unbiased evaluation,” she said. The goal would be to have the study completed by the middle of next year, she said.

Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the public health agency, said he has an open mind on the proposed merger. “If indeed it allows public health to do its job better, then by all means, the health district should become a county department,” he said.

The key issue is “will this assure that the residents of the county get the public health services they need?” Goldbaum said.

The health district’s duties include disease prevention, promoting public health and protecting the public from environmental threats, such as disease outbreaks. The agency also provides a variety of other services, including overseeing inspection of all restaurants and food service programs in the county, providing birth and death certificates, and permitting septic systems.

The health district is a separate government agency from county government. However, the county allocates money toward the operation of the public health agency, including $2 million this year, Klein said.

The health district has 145 employees. Its 2015 budget is $16.5 million. Its duties are overseen by a 15-member board, 10 elected officials from Snohomish County cities and all five members of the county council.

The county, with 2,790 employees, has an operating budget of $226 million this year. The county has an elected executive as well as five county council members.

The health district has had an ongoing debate over the years with the County Council over funding. The current system allows the council to say, “We’ve supplied you with $2 million, you need to do your job,” Klein said. “When it’s under our direct authority, if the $2 million isn’t enough, that becomes our responsibility.”

Goldbaum said the proposed change offers the possibility of providing other revenues for public health activities.

Klein said he thinks some efficiency could result from having the health district become part of county government. As one example, Klein said, getting a septic system permitted requires several trips between the county government and the health district. “There’s a lot of back and forth,” he said.

The health district also monitors landfills operated by the county, he said. “We’re essentially monitoring ourselves,” Klein said. “You wouldn’t have that middleman any more.”

There are other efficiencies that could be seen over time, Klein said. “But the immediate savings will be on solid waste and planning.”

State law requires counties to have an agency overseeing public health issues. Statewide, 23 public health agencies are departments of county government, Thomas said. In King and Pierce counties the health agencies work in collaboration with their largest cities, Seattle and Tacoma.

Snohomish is one of seven single county and three multi-county independent public health agencies in Washington, Thomas said.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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