Recommendation to dissolve joint health department met with disapproval

A bill to dissolve the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department — which passed through committee the day before — dominated the Dec. 8 meeting of the Pierce County Council in the form of scores of callers during the end-of-meeting Citizens Forum making it known they did not approve of the legislation.

Proposal No. 2020-136 would eliminate the joint health department in favor of a health department that would answer to the County Council instead of an eight-member board, half of which are Pierce County-elected officials, two from the Tacoma City Council, one from the Pierce County Cities and Towns Association and one from the Pierce County Medical Society.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s annual budget is $40 million, nearly $5 million of which comes from Pierce County and $1.1 million from Tacoma. As a county department, Tacoma would not continue to budget funds for the health department.

Tacoma resident and social worker Morgan Vanderpool echoed the bulk of callers’ concerns about the bill; Chair Doug Richardson noted 55 people were on hold waiting to be heard.

“I’m speaking today for the removal of Ordinance 2020-136, so we can maintain the co-governance of our Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department,” Vanderpool said, noting that with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic this is “no time to destabilize an organization that is working around the clock.”

“Now is not the time for reconstructing the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department as front line and public health care workers are fighting diligently to keep our community as healthy and safe as possible,” she continued.

Vanderpool labeled the proposed change at this time an “administrative distraction.”

Her comments reflected the events of the day before in which the Rules Committee voted 2-1 to recommend the proposal to the seven-member County Council at this week’s regular meeting of the body.

Both Republicans on the committee, Richardson and Dave Morell, approved the ordinance, but Councilmember Derek Young, a Democrat, voted against it.

Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards addressed the committee.

“I do want to express my deep disappointment and surprise,” she said. “Let’s have a conversation about why we’re going to make this move, why we think this movement is important, and, if it is really is as good for the citizenry as you say it is, then let’s make that argument.”

County Council Republicans contend the move would mean better representation in the form of a county health department rather than a board of health of community partners.

The move has generated controversy and accusations of playing politics in that it comes in the final days before a Democratic majority replaces the current Republican majority on the County Council. Last month, voters flipped the legislative body Democrat for the first time in 17 years.


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