The Southeastern Utah District Health Department is in danger of splintering apart, and if two member counties move forward with plans to drop out, officials say the disintegration could have major impacts on Grand County.
“This team works, like we’re providing public health services (and) protecting public health,” Southeastern Utah District Health Department Environmental Scientist Orion Rogers told the Grand County Council on Tuesday, Oct. 3. “If we go break this off, I think that it would be years before we had a functioning health department that was able to provide all of those services.”
Carbon County commissioners recently filed a 90-day notice of intent to withdraw from the department, and commissioners in Emery County have signaled that they’re interested in following suit. At the same time, leaders in Carbon County have discussed the possibility of forming a joint health department with Emery County, following reports of personality conflicts on the Southeast Utah Board of Health.
“It has been a crisis in Carbon County,” Carbon County Commissioner Jake Mellor told the Grand County Council.
Under an interlocal agreement between Carbon, Emery and Grand counties, the nine-member board is comprised of one member from each county’s governing body, plus two at-large members from each of the three counties – including former Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs.
For her part, Tubbs said she is not sure what problems have arisen on the board of health.
“I’ve been accused personally; Grand County has been held responsible for causing all of these issues,” Tubbs said. “Not one detail has been offered as to what we have done, or what I have done.”
Counties share funding responsibilities for department
In 2016, the vast majority of the department’s revenues – about 67 percent – came from state and federal sources, while program fees and income generated another 16 percent. The three counties chipped in with another 12 percent, with just under $128,900 from Carbon County; $95,535 from Emery County; and $77,364 from Grand County.
Together, the three counties share major costs for departmental positions, including a health officer, a nursing director and an epidemiologist, according to Southeastern Utah District Health Department Interim Director Brady Bradford.
The department and most of its employees are headquartered in the Carbon County seat of Price, and in the event that Carbon and Emery counties withdraw from the district, Bradford said those positions would be in jeopardy.
“All of those things are shared costs that would be immediately lost, and it would take some time to be able to figure out how to be able to replace those individuals, or change job descriptions or train people to fill those roles,” he said.
If the district fractures, Bradford said there would be no trained health promotion staff member in Moab. The position accounts for a significant portion of the department’s grants, which include tobacco control, chronic injuries and illnesses and opiate addiction.
“While they have staff here that is trained to do some of those things … the staff from the Price office is typically coming down here to perform those other activities of health promotion,” he said.
Other shared expenses include the costs for a Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program director, a dietitian, a budgeting and accounting officer and a management services specialist. In addition, the three counties help foot the bills for maintenance, supplies, utilities and a $22,336 annual lease on the Moab office building.
Bradford anticipates that the transition of administrative issues, such as payroll and contract management, would eventually be absorbed by Grand County.
Rogers, who is also an environmental health scientist, noted that he is the department’s only full-time employee in Grand County: In addition to him, two part-time nurses and two part-time clerks work out of the Moab office.
The Moab office is able to provide the services it does only because it has the support of the other counties, Rogers said.
Without that support, Grand County Council member Patrick Trim questioned how a diminished department would serve Moab and Grand County.
“My concern is the gap in services that this might present,” Trim said. “I know we could probably recover from this, but I’m trying to figure out how long it would take to recover from it and set up our own (department), or partner with other counties.”
Carbon, Emery officials address council
Mellor told the council that Carbon and Emery counties would love to continue to work with Grand County. But over the past six to eight months, he said, the board of health has been “very distracted” by “side issues” that have prevented it from focusing on the overall purpose of public health.
“I’m not going to say that one county – any county – is without blame in regards to that,” he said.
Still, other commissioners and county members who have been involved in the board’s process believe that the current board is desensitized to its functions.
“It has been – how would you say it – a shame that it has come to this point,” Mellor said.
The department has not been performing its normal duties – such as swimming pool and restaurant inspections – as regularly as it had been, he said, because of the board’s “micromanaging.”
While he brought other concerns to the council’s attention, Mellor called the seven-month process to hire a new department director “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Newly appointed Emery County Commissioner Kent Wilson said he felt the issue was so important that he skipped his first official meeting in Emery County to address the Grand County Council.
Emery County commissioners may follow Carbon County’s lead, Wilson said – not because they want to join them, but because they felt like they need to keep their options open and reserve the right to do what’s best for their county.
“And today, we’re not sure what that is,” Wilson said. “From our perspective, we want to get along.”
Like Mellor, Wilson criticized the hiring process for a new department director, adding that it should have been a 30-day process.
“By taking seven months, they turned the health department over to an interim director with very little guidance,” he said. “And so I say, congratulations, Brady, for taking care of responsibilities at the board of directors, because there was so much infighting trying to replace a director that they forgot that they have a responsibility to the taxpayers and the citizens of the counties. And so if it takes blowing up the board, I’m OK with that. Whatever it takes.”
Wilson said he doesn’t view the issue to be a power struggle.
“It’s about what’s best for our citizens,” he said. “… I’m not sure how we got here, but at some point we lost focus on the people.”
Tubbs, who served on the board’s hiring committee as it was searching for a new department director, said the entire committee and full board agreed that the hiring process was not a very good one.
She also addressed one personality conflict that officials in Carbon County have only alluded to: In an email, she said, Mellor accused her of having an agenda and being “aggressive.”
“At that point, I did not want to be a distraction to the hiring committee, and I withdrew from the hiring committee – not from the board,” Tubbs said.
As far as she’s concerned, Tubbs doesn’t think that county commissioners or council members should be discussing issues that come before the board of health.
“I think the problems that we’re talking about are board issues,” she said. “They’re not issues for county councils or county commissions.”
She also disputed Mellor’s claim that county council and commission members are the governing entities in charge of the department.
“That’s absolutely incorrect,” she said. “The governing entity of the health department is the board of health.”
For that reason, she said, it’s not appropriate for county council and commission members to meet apart from the full board and make decisions.
“I strenuously object to that,” she said.
Wilson countered that he has an email from Miner – the state health department’s director – which states that the authority for the department rests with county officials – not the board of directors.
Grand County Council member Curtis Wells said he can understand where Tubbs is coming from in terms of the health board’s business. But from a Grand County Council member’s perspective, he said, it’s clear that there is some conflict with the board.
“… You have half of the board stating, ‘The conflict and the lack of efficient management is so bad that we’re willing to hit the red button,’” he said.
Officials outline potential impacts to Grand County if Carbon and Emery drop out
My concern is the gap in services that this might present … I know we could probably recover from this, but I’m trying to figure out how long it would take to recover from it and set up our own (department), or partner with other counties.