‘Once excellent’ Snohomish Health District now ‘crumbling away’

EVERETT — The Snohomish Health District has existed since 1959, but many people don’t seem to know what it does.

The public may be most familiar with its work responding to health emergencies, such as the swine flu pandemic of 2009; a California woman contagious with measles who potentially exposed at least 173 people to the virus here last year; or assisting a Monroe child care center in July after two children were diagnosed with E. coli infections.

The health district provides services countywide, as diverse as conducting restaurant inspections, reviewing the design and installation of septic systems, and inspecting compost and solid waste sites.

Now it’s facing one of the biggest crises in its 57-year history: What is the future?

The health agency has been wracked by budget cuts and layoffs, occurring five times since 2008. “We were once an excellent health district and we’re crumbling away before your eyes,” Jefferson Ketchel, the environmental health director, told members of the governing board at a meeting last week.

The health district, unlike fire, hospital and even diking districts, has no taxing power. It gets money from the county, licenses and permits, and state and federal sources.

After years of program cutbacks, the health district is asking cities in Snohomish County for a $2 per person contribution. The cities now pay nothing. Officials say that without additional money, the health district will face layoffs next year.

Meanwhile, Snohomish County Councilman Ken Klein has pushed to have the health district no longer continue as a separate body and to be incorporated into county government.

The agency is dealing with a number of other issues, including: What services it should provide; whether its current 15-member board should be reduced; whether the board’s mix of city and county council members should be changed; and whether local cities should help pay for district services.

The health district asked the William D. Ruckelshaus Center at the University of Washington to conduct a study.

When the $48,000 report was presented last week, there weren’t enough board members present for a quorum. Seven people showed up, and eight were needed to take a vote.

It underscored one of the issues discussed in the Ruckelshaus report, that the health district has problems in how it governs itself.

With 15 members, the health district’s governing board is the largest in the state, said Heather Thomas, an agency spokeswoman.

Marysville City Councilwoman Donna Wright, who has been on the health district board 25 years, was among those frustrated at the lack of attendance.

“Look at our attendance today,” she said. “We were pretty good for a few months. Now we’re back to the same pattern — we don’t have a quorum.

“You have to have committed people and people that will be involved,” she said.

Snohomish County Councilman Brian Sullivan said elected officials often are expected to attend numerous meetings, sometimes scheduled at conflicting times.

“I’m required to sit on 12 boards,” he said. “This is one of the jobs.”

Klein characterized the health district’s financial situation as dire. “Everybody needs to understand that the status quo can’t continue,” he said.

Klein said he feels one solution would be to have the health district become part of county government, which he has argued would result in savings and greater accountability.

The Ruckelshaus report was based in part on interviews with 73 people, including board members and staff.

It found no consensus for the change Klein is seeking. “A very limited number of people recommended moving to the county,” said Amanda Murphy, a member of the study team.

Instead, the health district needs to deal with the size of its governing board before it can deal with finances, the study team suggested.

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

Talk to us

More in Local News

Jesse L. Hartman (Everett Police Department)
Suspect in fatal Everett shooting captured at U.S. border

Jesse Hartman was arrested in California as he tried to re-enter the country from Mexico.

The state House transportation budget proposes $15,000,000 to widen state improving Highway 524 between 24th Avenue West in Lynnwood and 9th Avenue SE.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Who wants a wider Highway 524 between Bothell and Lynnwood?

The project list includes expanding the three-mile, two-lane road between Bothell and Lynnwood.

People on jet skis and boats drive past the Hannah Marie, formerly called the Midas, that was run aground along the banks of the Snohomish River on Tuesday, July 3, 2018 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett couple writes check to clean up the Snohomish River

Phil and Kelly Johnson have donated $50,000 to the county project that removes derelict vessels.

FILE - This Monday, June 17, 2019, file photo shows 5-mg pills of Oxycodone. While the nation's attorneys general debate a legal settlement with Purdue Pharma, the opioid epidemic associated with the company's blockbuster painkiller OxyContin rages on. The drugs still kill tens of thousands of people each year with no end in sight. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)
High court ruling spurs effort to retool state’s drug laws

Meanwhile, the Blake decision has gotten people out jail, charges dismissed and possibly clemency for some.

Gabriel van Winkle, center, struggles with lifting a bag of rice weighing nearly half his weight as he and volunteers help move the Granite Falls Food Bank from their old location to a new one on Tuesday, April 6, 2021 in Granite Falls, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
New digs will give Granite Falls nonprofit room to grow

The small town’s community coalition and food bank have found a home on school district grounds.

NO CAPTION NECESSARY: Logo for the Cornfield Report by Jerry Cornfield. 20200112
5 wrinkles for lawmakers to iron out in session’s last days

Here’s what’s happening on Day 92 of the 2021 session of the Washington Legislature.

Randy White helps transport dogs from a Fetch airplane to cars waiting on the tarmac to transport the animals to The NOAH Center and PAWS on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Go, dogs, go! Cats, too — on a charter flight from California

Wings of Rescue, which airlifts companion animals, made a big delivery to Everett for local shelters.

Marysville police investigating gunshots that injured man

The Marysville man, 62, suffered a wound to his left knee and was treated at a hospital.

Most Read