‘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.

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