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Debate rages over proposal to dissolve Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department partnership

(Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, Facebook)

With a proposal to dissolve the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s city-county partnership making progress toward passing, a hotly-contested debate has emerged among local leaders.

Proposal seeks to dissolve Tacoma-Pierce County Health Dept. partnership

The legislation would effectively terminate the 38-year-old interlocal agreement Tacoma has with the county health department, a move that would cut off $1.1 million in funding provided by the city, while leading to a sizable reworking of how the department operates.

If passed, it would make it so the department’s health director would no longer report to its eight-member board of elected officials, and instead report directly to the county executive and council.

The bill was originally introduced by County Council Chair Doug Richardson, although Richardson later took his name off the bill, leaving Councilmember Pam Roach as its sole sponsor.

In the days since it was first presented, battle lines have been drawn between Republicans and Democrats on the Pierce County Council. Meanwhile, health officials and other local leaders are pushing for a process with more input and research.

“I think we’re making a decision based on virtually zero understanding of what actually will happen and how it will work, and that’s a scary thing in the middle of a pandemic,” County Councilmember Derek Young told MyNorthwest.

Young’s chief concern is that with a process that would see the bill proposed, voted on, and potentially approved within a matter of weeks, there hasn’t been enough of research into any potential fallout.

To that end, his hope is to “at least have some comparative analysis to see what the advantages and disadvantages are.”

“Any time we have inter-agency type of work like this, making sure that our partners are brought along with us, even if they don’t end up agreeing, to me it’s critical that you at least try — there’s been no effort put into this,” he said.

That was a sentiment echoed by Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, who expressed “deep disappointment and surprise” about the suddenness of the proposal while speaking to the council’s rules committee this week.

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“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 as good for the citizenry, as you say it is, then let’s make that argument,” she implored.

Speaking to KTTH’s Jason Rantz, Roach expressed her belief that the bill represents a necessary shift in how the county’s health department is run.

“It’s going to allow the people that have more input into what’s going on right now,” she said. “Citizens can be the watchdog for the Department of Health, and I think that’s important.”

As for whether the measure will ultimately get passed, Republicans on the county council currently hold a 4-3 majority. That will shift to 4-3 in favor of the council’s Democrats at the start of the new year, though, making it a priority for Republicans to get the legislation approved before that happens.

Assuming the council’s Republicans are aligned, Young believes there’s a “high likelihood” the bill passes. Still, there are also indications that Roach and Richardson might not entirely agree on every aspect of the proposal.

“(Richardson is) offering an amendment that would have this take effect in January of 2022, essentially killing the bill,” Roach said. “I may take my name off of it and say, ‘you know what, Doug, if you can’t stand up like Pam Roach is doing for a principle, then I don’t know what — you’re obviously not moving forward with this.'”

The bill was passed out of the council’s rules committee on Monday, and is set for a final vote on Dec. 15.

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