Health district budgets money to study its possible takeover by county

EVERETT — The Snohomish Health District plans to spend about $60,000 next year studying its proposed demise as an independent public agency.

The money would pay for a third-party assessment of Snohomish County’s proposal to turn the district into a county department.

The health district’s board members approved the money as part of the agency’s $20.7 million budget — including $3 million for building renovations — for 2016. It passed in a unanimous 8-0 vote; seven board members missed Tuesday’s vote.

No cuts are planned next year, but the district expects to use $1.9 million of its reserves to make ends meet. Based on its current revenues, its reserves would be completely used up in a couple of years, according to the district’s budget projections.

“Am I OK with this? Not particularly,” said Scott Murphy, a board member and Everett city councilman.

The district’s “funding continues to be cut,” making it per capita one of the poorest public health agencies in the state, he said.

Several other board members at the meeting expressed frustration and disappointment that the health district has faced flat or declining revenues in recent years, even as the county’s population has grown. That has forced the district to make cuts.

The budget includes $2.65 million from the county. The district also expects to get about $7.3 million from the state and federal governments.

It would be great if the county had $500,000 it could give the district, but it doesn’t, said Terry Ryan, a county councilman and district board member.

“What do you cut?” he asked during Tuesday’s meeting. Money for veterans? Senior citizens? The courts? Public health?

“There’s no easy answer,” he said.

It is not getting easier for the district, which expects to burn through its reserves and be in the red by 2018.

Folding the district into the county could solve that dilemma by making public health spending the county’s responsibility, Councilman Ken Klein said earlier this year when he proposed the merger. His proposal would be effective Jan. 1, 2017.

The County Council agreed to study the proposal in late October. It later passed a resolution saying that it would only agree to the merger if the assessment is positive and the district’s 15-member board agrees to it. The board members include 10 elected officials from Snohomish County cities and all five members of the county council.

The health district is run separately from county government. Its responsibilities include disease prevention, promoting public health and protecting people from environmental health threats. It also provides services such as overseeing restaurant inspections, and providing birth and death certificates.

State law requires counties to have an agency overseeing public health issues. Most are departments of county governments. Ten are separate agencies covering a single county or multiple counties.

The assessment, which the health district included in its 2016 budget, would include the consolidation’s feasibility, and the possible effects on the district’s operating costs and the public’s health.

The district already has contacted the Ruckelshaus CQCenter about overseeing the assessment. The center supports collaborative problem solving, and is a joint project run by the University of Washington and Washington State University.

Given its uncertain future, the district budgeted for 2016 as if nothing is changing, Snohomish Health District spokeswoman Heather Thomas said.

However, it gave itself flexibility in the $3 million it plans to spend renovating its main building on Rucker Avenue in downtown Everett. Nearly half of that money is for remodeling offices to lease, which could bring in more revenue.

The district would not spruce the place up for rent if it is merging with the county, she said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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