Archuleta County is looking to pull out of San Juan Basin Public Health, putting the region’s top health department at risk of disbanding and its executive director searching for a new job in Oregon.
In recent weeks, Archuleta County commissioners Ronnie Maez and Alvin Schaaf have called for the county to pull out of SJBPH and create its own public health department.
SJBPH serves both Archuleta County, which has a population of about 12,000 people, and La Plata County, with about 56,000 residents.
Maez declined to comment for this story, and Schaaf did not return multiple requests seeking comment.
But according to a report in the June 18 edition of The Pagosa Springs Sun, both commissioners expressed frustration with SJBPH and some of the decisions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A big part of this is it’s important to have more local control,” Schaaf said, according to the Sun. “We are not another county, we are our county. If it’s doable, I think we owe it to the citizens to at least consider it.”
Archuleta County commissioners have been at odds with some of the restrictions suggested by SJBPH and have even voted to enact different sets of guidelines and policies than recommended by the health department.
In April, for example, the commission voted to follow Gov. Jared Polis’ health order and not the recommendation of SJBPH, according to the Sun.
“We’re not adding another eight more days of pain to the people that are trying to make a living and pay their bills,” Maez said. “(SJBPH thinks) the only way they can educate the people here to follow Gov. Polis’ policy is to have eight more days to educate the people – but if you get on the governor’s website, it’s pretty clear.”
Archuleta County commissioner Steve Wadley told The Durango Herald on Thursday he does not support pulling out of SJBPH, especially during a public health crisis.
But Wadley said the other two commissioners have directed the county to create a task force to investigate what creating its own public health department would entail, which is currently being set up.
“I’m happy with what we’ve gotten from San Juan Basin Public Health,” he said. “And I believe when all the dust settles, we’ll never find a better deal than the one we have.”
By state law, Colorado counties must create local health districts.
SJBPH was formed 70 years ago to serve both Southwest Colorado counties. Archuleta County contributes about $130,000 a year, and La Plata County contributes about $545,000 a year to the department’s $6.1 million budget.
But if Archuleta County withdrew, it would be unfeasible to disentangle the two counties and likely would force La Plata County to form its own district, said executive director Liane Jollon.
Megan Graham, spokeswoman for La Plata County, said discussions have begun in case Archuleta County drops out.
“If the structure were to change, that wouldn’t stop us from providing those services,” she said. “But of course, we’d have to evaluate what the best option for delivering those services would be.”
SJBPH’s Board of Directors has called for a joint meeting with Archuleta and La Plata county representatives in the coming weeks to forge a path forward.
If Archuleta County decided to leave, state law requires at least a yearlong transition. No date had been set for the joint meeting as of Thursday.
“It’s really important for everyone to have clarity,” Jollon said. “And until we have that conversation ... it’s really hard to understand and plan appropriately.”
SJBPH’s uncertain future has prompted Jollon to entertain and explore other job opportunities.
Recently, it was announced Jollon is one of three finalists to become director of the Benton County Health Department in Oregon. Jollon was in Oregon on Thursday, interviewing for the job.
“Given the uncertainty of our health district, it does make sense for me to look at other opportunities,” she said.
Jollon said she did not actively seek out the position. Instead, Benton County reached out to her after she was recommended by professional connections she has in Oregon.
Benton County manager Joe Kerby said during a public meeting Thursday evening he wants to decide on the new hire by next week. Kerby was La Plata County manager from 2012 to 2017 before leaving for the position in Benton County.
Jollon did not say whether she would stay in her current position if Archuleta County decided to continue with SJBPH, but said the county’s decision is a “very important factor” in her decision about a new job.
Jollon joined San Juan Basin Public Health as a clinic nurse in 2010 and was named executive director in August 2013.
But in recent months, Jollon has been known as the top director in the health agency’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The two-county region effectively flattened the curve at the onset of the pandemic, but cases have spiked in recent weeks as regulations were relaxed and more tourists visited the region.
As of Thursday, La Plata County had 208 positive cases; and Archuleta, 38 positive cases.
Asked whether Archuleta County’s attempted departure and her job search would distract from the COVID-19 response, Jollon said no.
“We’re working insanely hard as a team with community partners,” she said. “And we’re not letting any of this get in the way of the planning and work we need to do as a team.”
La Plata County commissioner Gwen Lachelt, who also serves on SJBPH’s Board of Directors, said she was not concerned with local health officials’ ability to respond to the pandemic, even with the recent developments.
“We would have overrun our health care system months ago if we did not have San Juan Basin Public Health,” she said. “They are a solid organization doing a really excellent job, and that’s not going to change, whether or not Archuleta County ultimately decides to leave.”
Lachelt expressed full confidence should La Plata County need to form its own health district. She was more concerned, however, about Archuleta County’s ability to create its own district, given that it contributes only about $130,000 per year to SJBPH.
“It’s going to take much more than $100,000 to stand up their own public health department,” she said. “It takes a lot of work, it’s not just a casual decision.”
Jollon said it’s a tumultuous time for public health agencies across the nation. In Colorado, for instance, there are nine vacancies for directors among the state’s 53 public health departments, a rate of about 20%.
SJBPH itself has struggled as the state braces for massive deficits. The local health department had to let go and transfer about 10 staffers to a nonprofit, and it plans staff reductions and budget cuts in several other programs.
SJBPH now employs about 60 staffers. Many of those jobs, Jollon said, are now at risk with the upheaval of Archuleta County’s possible departure.
“COVID-19 is really highlighting the need for public health,” she said. “And San Juan Basin Public Health is working as hard as we can to bring in every resource we can find to contain the disease.”