Natural resources, conservation focus of new county agency

The county parks department may merge with agriculture, sustainability and surface water divisions.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Tom Teigen. (Snohomish County)

Parks and Recreation Department Director Tom Teigen. (Snohomish County)

EVERETT — Four Snohomish County government agencies may merge to form a department focused on natural resources and conservation.

Tom Teigen, currently director of the Snohomish County Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department, presented the concept to the County Council in late October.

Teigen’s department, with the equivalent of 194.13 full-time employees, would merge with three other offices: the Surface Water Management Division, with 95 full-time employees; the Energy and Sustainability Office, with nine full-time employees and the Agriculture Office, which has one full-time employee.

One potential name for the merged agencies is the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation — but that’s not final.

Teigen would take the helm.

“My hope would be that we could provide a streamlined vision under one leader,” county executive Dave Somers said.

Direction to pursue the new department came straight from the executive’s office. Through the merger, Somers said he hopes the county will have a more cohesive way to pursue environmental and sustainability goals.

All four agencies “have to do with environment, quality of life and sustainability issues,” Somers said.

The new department would begin forming in January and start functioning in early 2022.

There’s no plan to let anyone go as a result of the merger, Somers said. The new department will also be subject to the county’s current hiring freeze.

Between surface water management and parks, Teigen said there’s currently about 20 unfilled positions.

The Agriculture and Energy and Sustainability Offices — the smallest departments — may benefit most from the merger.

“There’s an opportunity in this larger structure to value those more and try to dedicate additional … human and financial resources to those endeavors,” Teigen said at an Oct. 21 county council meeting.

The Agriculture Office’s lone employee, Linda Neunzig, has “been creating an amazing program out of almost nothing” for the last 14 years, Teigen said.

Councilmember Sam Low said he’s concerned the merger could draw staff attention away from parks.

“…We have 110 parks and I want to make sure we don’t lose focus on parks. I kind of feel like putting this all together puts a lot more on (Teigen’s) plate and puts a lot more focus on all this other stuff…” Low said at the meeting.

Teigen said the merger won’t decrease any emphasis on the individual sectors, but will bolster the smaller programs.

Councilmember Megan Dunn questioned the inclusion of surface water.

“I think it makes sense to include agriculture, sustainability, parks,” she said. “But I’m having a hard time seeing the connection for surface water.”

The vast majority of surface water’s work is done on parks or public property, Teigen said.

“So we typically do a lot of work already in the same space,” he said.

Surface water also houses many of the biologists, ecologists and engineers working on water quality issues.

The surface water division’s role as a utility will remain a separate function from the new department.

Costs to run the new department should stay the same or go down over the next several years, Teigen said.

Councilmember Stephanie Wright said she’d like to see the county reach out to surface water ratepayers before making any decisions on a merger.

In a Oct. 28 council meeting, she also questioned if a pandemic is the best time to create a new “super department.”

But Teigen said the individual agency structures will remain much the same. Only three people will report to a new supervisor. Surface Water will transition out of the Public Works Department, but will remain its own division, Somers said.

“The endgame is a better environmental preservation,” Teigen said.

The county council will consider code amendments making way for the new department next week. After that, the public will have a chance to give input.

Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; jgsanders@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @sanders_julia.

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