New plan would merge Snohomish Health District with county

The COVID-19 pandemic proved the integration would improve public health responses, officials say.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

EVERETT — County Executive Dave Somers has a plan to bring the Snohomish Health District and all its employees under the county government by next year.

Lacey Harper, an executive director in Somers’ office, made the pitch to the County Council last week in a presentation titled “Strengthening public health in Snohomish County.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the county and the health district have worked closely, almost as one, showing what it would be like if the two were integrated, Harper said. Joining the two would simply “make formal what has been informal over the last two years,” according to a memo sent to council members.

The idea to fold public health into the county government, “like most large counties in our state,” has been mulled for at least a decade now, Harper said. She argued having one entity would cut through bureaucratic red tape, streamline permitting, create more funding opportunities and prevent future conflicts.

During the pandemic, she said, the dual authorities of the county and the health district could have been “a catastrophic barrier to our success.” It was a matter of luck that the various personalities at the two governments got along.

“We had the right folks at the right places at the right time,” she said, “and so we avoided having serious conflict between our two organizations.”

That wasn’t the case in other jurisdictions across the country, though, she said.

Created in 1959, the Snohomish Health District now employs 135 full- and part-time staff. The county executive has “committed to safeguarding all of our health district staff and county staff if you approve this integration,” Harper told council members. The new public health department would still have its own director and “rely on the talents of a health officer,” she said.

There would be a new board to advise the department. The current one is composed of 15 elected officials from across the county, split into five districts. But new changes to state law dictate elected officials can’t make up the majority of positions on a board of health. Non-elected positions would include health experts, consumers of health care and other community stakeholders, like tribal members.

There would be “minor disruptions” during the transition, Harper acknowledged, but ultimately the new county department should be better funded and be better poised for long-term planning.

No council members signaled opposition to the proposal. Nate Nehring and Stephanie Wright expressed support. Council Chair Megan Dunn noted the potential risk to “alienate our cities” and asked whether the health district’s foundation could still operate.

Harper said the foundation shouldn’t be affected. Cities, tribes and other stakeholders would be consulted throughout the process, she said.

The Snohomish Health District’s board has a special meeting scheduled at 3 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the idea. A proposed resolution attached the agenda notes how the two governments have collaborated in the past, including during the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, the aftermath of the 2014 Oso mudslide, the opioid epidemic and, most recently, the years-long response to COVID-19.

The County Council will consider approving the proposal at its June 8 meeting. If approved, the county could have a new public health department by Jan. 1.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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