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Archuleta County again considers split with San Juan Basin Public Health

Committee may study other options for providing services
San Juan Basin Public Health might lose one of its service areas, Archuleta County. The county is interested in exploring other public health options after raising concerns about regulations administered by SJBPH. (Durango Herald file)

Archuleta County is flirting again with the idea of leaving San Juan Basin Public Health, saying costs have increased and the health department’s policies are not always in line with residents’ values.

The health department manages public health services, including the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for both La Plata and Archuleta counties. But Archuleta County commissioners have been at odds with some of the regulations and COVID-19 restrictions administered by SJBPH.

Talk of leaving seemed to cool down last August after a joint meeting between SJBPH and officials from Archuleta and La Plata counties. But discussions ramped up again about mid-April, when Archuleta County began looking for people to join an investigative committee to study other public health options.

“We just feel like we owe it to taxpayers to take a good look at this and see if we can do better,” said Scott Walls, Archuleta County manager.

It’s not just the pandemic regulations that caused friction. Archuleta County commissioners have heard frustrations expressed by the building community about expensive septic system requirements.

When COVID-19 came around, it felt like the decisions were being made for the benefit of Durango, 60 miles to the west, and less so for Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County residents, Walls said.

Then fees owed by Archuleta County to SJBPH increased, and there were breakdowns in communication with the county’s emergency management people and SJBPH, he said.

“It didn’t seem like we were getting the service the taxpayers were paying for,” he said.

Archuleta County commissioners are scheduled in July to consider officially forming the committee to investigate other health department options, Walls said.

The committee will look into forming a health district with nearby counties like Hinsdale and Mineral, or creating a public health agency just for Archuleta County, among other options.

Liane Jollon, director of SJBPH, said Thursday she was unaware of Archuleta County’s most recent concerns. The groups have not met about the topic since August, she said.

“I will say it is the county commissioners’ role, as elected officials in service to their community, to ask these types of questions and explore options,” Jollon said.

Public health services in Colorado are often more complex than they seem, she said.

For example, the state sets minimum standards for septic systems. Colorado provided a menu of additional options that were not required, and the SJBPH board of health adopted two of those options. It did not adopt any additional design standards.

“This is very consistent with the majority of counties around the state,” Jollon said. “There are concerns that septic systems are expensive, and that in general, the cost of housing in Southwest Colorado has gotten very expensive. It is difficult for families to make it in our communities.”

Archuleta County was forced to pay higher fees to SJBPH after La Plata County increased its funding to the health department in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A state statute requires proportional funding, meaning Archuleta County, a partner of SJBPH, was required to match the increase.

An emergency response policy group, which includes Archuleta County, has been meeting two to three times per week since March 2020 to make COVID-19 response decisions.

“Through this event (the pandemic), we have worked really, really hard to build communication pathways,” Jollon said.

Nearly all services available in La Plata County are also available in Archuleta County, according to SJBPH.

All counties in Colorado are statutorily required to provide public health services. If Archuleta County leaves SJBPH, it would be required to find a new way to provide those services. La Plata County would need to do the same.

“We appreciate the commissioners looking at the best way to deliver this to the community, but we are also well aware of the complexities of looking at all of the pieces and developing the expertise to serve the community well,” Jollon said.

Archuleta County, with a population of about 14,000 people, contributes about $280,000 a year, and La Plata County, with a population of about 56,000 people, contributes about $1.12 million a year to SJBPH – about a 20/80 split.

SJBPH has a budget of about $9 million, a $3 million increase compared with its 2020 budget because of additional state and federal COVID-19 relief funding. Jollon expects the department’s budget to increase to more than $10 million before the end of the year because of staff members’ efforts to secure private, state and federal funding.

“We hope and believe that anyone looking to deliver public health would do a tremendous amount of research,” Jollon said. “Of course, our staff has a lot of institutional and historical knowledge and a lot of relationships to seek funding. And we are available to participate in conversations should Archuleta County commissioners want to learn more about the specific responsibilities.”


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