EVERETT — The Snohomish Health District, unlike fire, hospital and even diking districts, has no taxing power.
So after years of program cutbacks and layoffs, this year it’s taking a new tack: Asking area cities for a $2 per person contribution to its budget. The cities now pay nothing.
For Everett, the county’s largest city, that would mean an estimated $216,600; and for Index, the county’s smallest city, $330.
Even Snohomish County, which provides the health district $2.25 million plus $400,000 from the county’s chemical dependency and mental health sales tax, is being asked to increase its overall contribution to $3.14 million.
“We’re reaching a point where the funds we have won’t allow us to sustain the foundational services of public health — things as critical as monitoring what diseases are occurring and who’s dying of what,” said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the countywide public health agency.
In 2008, the health district had the equivalent of 227 full-time employees. That number has now dropped to 140, he said.
Of the state’s 35 local health agencies, the Snohomish Health District ranks next to last in the per capita money that it gets, Goldbaum said.
This at a time when the number of people living in the county continues to increase, now at about 773,000.
Without additional money, the health district will face laying off additional staff starting next year, Goldbaum said, limiting its ability to respond to epidemics or disasters like the Oso mudslide.
Health district staff plan to pitch their idea at city council meetings starting this month and meet with county officials, said health district spokeswoman Heather Thomas.
If local governments agree to the per capita formula, it would increase the health district’s budget by $2.4 million.
The health district plans to draw up a plan on how the money would be used after talking with cities and the county, Thomas said. But the money would allow the health district to work on programs such as battling heroin addiction through a countywide needle cleanup program, working with cities to clean up nuisance properties, and collaborating with school districts on suicide prevention efforts, she said.
Using a per capita formula means the amount local governments would be asked to chip in could increase every year. While public officials generally acknowledge the cuts to the health district and support the work it does, they question where they would come up with the money.
For the city of Snohomish, it would mean paying $19,250 to the health district next year. Snohomish Mayor Karen Guzak served on the health district board for five years. The agency conducts a lot of important tasks, including restaurant inspections, water testing and permitting of septic systems, she said. That’s in addition to supporting women and infant programs and tracking diseases, such as whooping cough, tuberculosis and the Zika virus.
“We have all kinds of benefits in the whole region from the health district and we haven’t had to pay for it,” Guzak said. Even so, there may be push back to the proposal, she said. “I don’t know how that will fly here.”
If Edmonds agreed to the health district’s funding formula, it would cost the city $81,800.
“We need to consider it,” Mayor Dave Earling said. The public needs to understand that the health district has been facing financial challenges for the last few years, he said.
But there’s a cumulative effect on requests by public agencies for money, Earling said. The county is asking for a 0.2 percent sale tax increase for law and justice on the August primary ballot. Without it, the county says it could face a $6 million shortfall.
Edmonds has an operating budget of $39 million. As the city considers the health district request as part of its upcoming budget, Earling said the question for the city is: “What wouldn’t happen here that we might be able to do?”
A spokeswoman for Everett said the health district’s proposal is still being evaluated.
For years, local cities wrote annual checks to the health district. Beginning in 1966, 11 cities agreed to pay 50 cents per capita. Over the years, the formula was amended. By 1986, it was $1.60 to $2.70 per capita, based on the population.
That funding method changed after the state added license tab fees, part of which went to support public health programs. But that fee was overturned by an initiative in 2002. Since then, funding for the health district has come from county, state and federal sources.
Snohomish County Council member Brian Sullivan also serves as chairman of the health district board. “We’re not set up at this point to deal with a major health crisis that may come,” he said of the need for supporting public health. In other counties, the cities do make voluntarily contributions to public health agencies, Sullivan said.
If local cities are being asked to chip in, “the county should, too,” Sullivan said. The county is facing serious urban problems, he said, such as drug addiction and homelessness. Public health can play a big role in those issues, he said.
One other factor plays into the health district’s funding issue. A proposal is now being considered to incorporate the health district into county government, rather than continuing as an independent agency.
Goldbaum said that regardless of how that plays out, “we need financial resources in order to continue to do the work that we do.”
The Snohomish Health District is asking for additional funding in 2017. Part of that money might go to a countywide program to safely remove used syringes from parks and other public places. This story originally misidentified the proposed program.
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org.