County Council OKs creation of new public health agency

After a unanimous vote, the Snohomish Health District is set to become part of county government.

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EVERETT — Snohomish County’s public health agency could have more funding and offer more services directly to residents by next year.

That’s the goal, at least, as officials work to move the Snohomish Health District into the fold of county government. The County Council voted unanimously Wednesday to start the months-long process, at the behest of Executive Dave Somers.

“At the end of the day, when I’m done being county executive, I want my legacy to be we have a stronger public health service in the county,” Somers told the district’s Board of Health last week.

Specifically, Somers’ goal is to revamp public health’s direct administration of vaccines and mental health services to the community.

In a memo to the council, he said joining forces with the health district will help combat the opioid epidemic, strengthen disease prevention, address homelessness, streamline permitting, help underserved communities and respond to “nuisance properties.”

That’s in part because the new health department would benefit from the county’s grant-writing capabilities. Plus, it would have access to the new 0.1% sales tax.

On Wednesday, several city officials expressed support for the idea. Mountlake Terrace Mayor Kyoko Matsumoto Wright and Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring both said the move would prevent the health district from asking cities for financial help again.

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin sent a staffer to express the city’s “enthusiastic support.”

But some are wary of how fast the change is happening.

“I feel like we’re rushing without all the details,” said Board of Health member Stephanie Vignal, who serves on the Mill Creek City Council.

Everett City Council member Ben Zarlingo and Mukilteo City Council member Elisabeth Crawford, who both serve on the Board of Health, echoed her concerns. And Wednesday, Public Health Advisory Council Chair Jeff Clarke said his group wasn’t consulted.

“I didn’t hear anything until the Herald article came out over the weekend. That is a week-and-a-half before this council has been asked to make a very important decision on public health in this county,” Clarke said. “This leaves me wondering just what the point is of an advisory board if it’s not given the time to consider the matter and give a presentation to the board.”

Despite the concerns, the Board of Health voted unanimously in support of the integration plan.

Officials said the idea has been talked about for years.

COVID-19 proved that the health district was already partnering with county government, said Lacey Harper, Somers’ chief of staff.

At a meeting with the Board of Health last week, she cited the county’s draft COVID-19 “after-action report.”

“One of the key findings of that report is to make formal what has been informal for the past two years,” Harper said.

Board of Health chair and County Council member Stephanie Wright said it’s an exciting departure from years past, when most her time at the Snohomish Health District was spent advocating to keep programs or “begging for state funding.”

“For me, it’s about stability, too,” Stephanie Wright said. “To not always be fighting to keep our programs, or just always worried what we’re going to lose next.”

With a lull in the pandemic response, and enough time to cobble together a new health department before Jan. 1, the time is right, officials said.

Somers told the group that the new county department will still be led by a director and health officer. He committed to retaining all existing paid staff. But other specifics will need to be hashed out in the next six months.

Somers said strong policy language could be put in place to protect the new district from politics and ensure decisions are based on science.

State law will also require the new Board of Health to include more public health experts, consumers and non-elected officials. Currently, all members are elected officials.

On Wednesday, Providence Regional Medical Center Everett’s chief medical officer, Dr. Jay Cook, stressed the importance of keeping politics out of the new department.

“Across the country, many basic, time-tested public health measures like masking and vaccination have become political issues rather than medical ones,” Cook said. “And it would be my expectation that our current, robust, evidence-based public health department and personnel will continue to flourish under the new arrangement.”

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; claudia.yaw@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @yawclaudia.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the integration plan could cost the county $1 million. A countywide compensation study currently underway, which will include the health district and likely result in increased salaries, could end up having a $1 million price tag. The integration plan itself “will cost nothing, other than staff time,” according to a county spokesperson.

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