Commissioners consider public health service district

by Rhett Sifford
The San Juan County Commission considered the pros and cons of creating a special service district for the county public health department at their July 25 meeting.
County Public Health Director Kirk Benge reported to the commission that he spoke with directors of all the single-county health departments in the state in an effort to understand how they function.  He said none of them are special service districts. All operate as county departments.
Benge said state law helps maintain a close tie between the county and the health department. He said there would be restrictions if the county chooses to create a special service district.
Benge said they are prepared for the switch as early as October 1 and that it is “do-able” financially, even though the change would impact county overhead costs.
Benge explained the benefits to remain a county department include being structured like other single-county departments in the state and being able to call on them for legal advice.
“From a legal and precedent standpoint,” he added, “it makes sense to remain a county department.”
Commissioner Bruce Adams asked if the health department could remain with the county and at the same time minimize the impact on salaries in other departments.
Benge responded that there is “a lot of leeway” built into the state health code on how much administrative control is granted to the health department and how much remains with the county. He suggested the creation of a document to define public health salaries and wages and allow the health department to remain with the county.
Commissioner Phil Lyman said in the past, when the public health effort was led by an entity headquartered in Price, the biggest concern about the public health department was that it wasn’t getting services to county residents who most needed them. Lyman said the new department is succeeding in that area.
Lyman added that the health department has grown from three to twelve employees.  He said they are good-paying jobs and although the cost of providing the service has been high, it is “more than justified” in terms of the benefits received by county residents.
Lyman said that whether San Juan County Public Health becomes a special service district or remains a department of the county, the focus is getting public health services to the people who need them the most.
He explained that the county saw success when it created a special service district for San Juan Counseling and set out to duplicate that success with the public health department.  Lyman said they discovered that it’s not a “binary decision” and the best solution might be a hybrid.
Commissioner Rebecca Benally pointed out that the public health department is still in its infancy.  She suggested the county wait for the program to stabilize and become truly self-sufficient before considering the creation of a special service district.
Benge agreed.  He said he would prefer to focus on building department services and personnel rather than moving into a special service district. Adams said he is comfortable letting Benge and the health board handle the county public health if they feel they can.
In other business at the Commission meeting, County Economic Development Director Natalie Randall updated progress with Community Reinvestment Areas (CRAs). Since the commission created a Community Reinvestment Agency in December 2017, Randall has visited with each of the taxing entities in the county to educate them and receive feedback.
Randall reports that the most recent meeting was with the San Juan Health Service District Board.  She said they suggested the agency set up a “matrix” to help clearly determine when a CRA should be created.
Lyman said that instead of waiting for someone to come forward with a possible CRA project, the county should identify areas that might benefit from focused reinvestment and recruit the personnel themselves.
Adams added that Spanish Valley is ripe for just such a project. Lyman said there is definitely revenue to be raised, not only for businesses, but also from a tax standpoint. This revenue would provide a future benefit to the county, and Lyman pointed out that it’s “true to the spirit of the CRA.”
Larson and Company Senior Audit Manager Jon Haderlie presented the results of the annual audit at the July 25 meeting.  It was generally clean, but there were a few concerns.
Larson and Company said the Public Welfare Department, Road Capital Projects Fund, Municipal Building Fund, Emergency Medical Service Fund, and Landfill Fund were over budget at the end of 2017.
The Municipal Building Fund deficit is due to unforeseen expenditures related to the new Public Health Services building. San Juan County is proposing a significant increase in fees for services at the landfill in an attempt to make landfill operations self-sustaining.
The San Juan County Road Department is contributing approximately $500,000 to the Navajo Nation Road Department for maintenance of roads on the reservation. The responsibility for roads lies with the Navajo Nation since the county and state cannot secure a right-of-way for roads on reservation land. The funds are to be used to maintain a series of roads in San Juan County, including a number of heavily-traveled school bus routes.

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