City, county continue debate over management of health department
The decision as to what will constitute the governing body of the Cascade County City-County Health Department has not yet been resolved.
The issue stems from differing interpretations of the implementation of HB 121, a law that passed the Legislature this year and was signed by the governor.
The law reduces the authority of local health boards and health officials, states that a “governing body” must be designated to oversee a local health department.
County officials interpret the law to mean that it must be an elected body and adopted a version of a temporary agreement with the city that designates the County Commission as the governing body.
The city has rejected that version and the agreement is not in force until both parties have signed the document.
The city initially suggested that the county and city could agree to designate the board of health as the governing body, but the county has disagreed with that, and the city then suggested adding a city commissioner to the county commission to create the governing body.
Since the county doesn’t agree and the most effective way to settle a question of law is to ask the court to decide, city officials are planning to file a civil case in District Court asking for a declaratory judgment on the matter.
In an email to the county attorney’s office, Sara Sexe, the recently retired city attorney, noted that Lewis and Clark County, the City of Helena and the City of East Helena have tentatively agreed to a governing body structure that will include elected officials from all three local governments.
During the Oct. 6 county health board meeting, Commissioner Joe Briggs said that while the city is seeking a legal opinion, “we’re in a little bit of a governance limbo right now.”
The city has not yet filed its case in District Court and Trisha Gardner, county health officer, said that so far, no issues have arisen that would need the governing body to take action.
During the health board meeting, Carey Ann Haight, in the civil division of the county attorney’s office, said she was reviewing the draft the six page draft of the city’s complaint.
Sexe sent the draft to the county attorney’s office on Sept. 20 and asked for feedback, stating, “if our understanding of the County’s legal position here is correct, we would like to get moving on getting this issue resolved as soon as possible.”
The county has argued that they should be the governing body since CCHD employees fall under the county and the county funds the lionshare of CCHD currently.
Briggs said in the health board meeting that the cost of running the health department had increased this year and the county contributed an additional $385,000, bringing the county’s share to over $1 million. He said the city contributes $250,000 annually.
Gardner, the county health officer, said that the department did request more funding this year, primarily due to COVID and the extra workforce needed for that response.
She said they were expecting $130,000 in federal COVID relief funds for one new position over two years.
Gardner said that they still have nursing positions vacant, one for immunizations and one for communicable disease.