City, county consider new Health Department agreement

A plan designed to revise a 15-year-old agreement between the city and county for services provided by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is nearly completed, according to a presentation Oct. 11 during the Tacoma City Council study session.

The plan is the work of a task force created earlier this year to address the need to establish an agreement between current services provided by the Health Department — which has evolved in terms of funding and budgeting — and the current written agreement.

If approved by the Tacoma City Council, the revised agreement would take effect Jan. 1, and continue from year-to-year.

The new agreement differs from the existing agreement in several important areas:

— provides opportunity for other cities and towns to have one additional board member if they cooperatively provide a level of health pool funding comparable to funds provided by Tacoma;

— adds an additional board member from the Pierce County Council;

— removes the funding formula for cities and counties, which was based upon population and level of services;

Changing the composition and structure of the Board of Health received the most attention during Tuesday’s meeting. Currently, Pierce County Councilmembers Barbara Gelman and Dick Muri, as well as Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, serve on the Board of Health. Under the new plan, three members of the county council, in addition to the county executive, would serve on the board, increasing the county’s voting power on the eight-member board.

“It really is a power shift,” said Councilmember Mike Lonergan, who also noted that the city and county have been “getting along well” over the years. “It doesn’t cause me not to support this, but it does give Pierce County veto power.”

“I understand the concern,” said Councilmember Rick Talbert, who also serves on the Board of Health. “Still, I’ve never seen a political vote cast froom the Board of Health.”

Mayor Bill Baarsma added, “In times past, it would have been controversial to change the composition of the board. Over the years, the city’s involvement has changed. I think the task force is trying to have a board that reflects the prominent role of the county.”

Indeed, whereas the city pays approximately $580,000 annually to the Health Department, the county’s bill totals $3 million.

Discussion at Tuesday’s meeting provided some early indication that the new agreement had support from the mayor and most of the city council. The city’s Public Safety and Human Services committee has already made a do-pass recommendation.

“There weren’t a whole lot of sticking points,” said Councilmember Talbert, referring to the meeetings and discussion between city and county representatives while creating a new agreement. “Some of the changes were housekeeping, some of the changes were more major.”

Councilmember Tom Stenger expressed the greatest support for the plan. “The agreement reflects that the county is the lead,” he said. “We should pass this.”

The city council is expected to vote on the agreement this fall.

Work on the new interlocal agreement dates back to June 6, when a preliminary meeting of city and county employees was held to identify necessary changes and updates to the current plan, as well as identify policy issues. At that meeting, board membership, funding of the Health Department, and the status of Health Department property if the current agreement ended were identified as policy issues.