CASTLE ROCK — Douglas County’s Commissioners say their “waffling” about leaving the Tri-County Health Department has been wildly exaggerated.
In fact, the commissioners are more determined than ever to create their own health department. Even with two of the three being newly elected, the only thing that changed since July 10 of this year, when the commission sent a letter of their intent to leave Tri-County, is the date they plan to exit, said Commissioner-elect George Teal in an earlier interview with Complete Colorado.
That extension came about only after Tri-County agreed to give commissioners more control over how they govern in reaction to coronavirus.
County Commissioner Lora Thomas said the date was moved to Dec. 31, 2022 after Tri-County came to the commissioners and worked out a deal that would keep the county under Tri-County’s direction for an additional 18 months.
According to Thomas, a big part of the misunderstanding around the the decision to initially leave, and then extend the departure is because of how it was portrayed by Thomas’ opponent in the recent election, Darien Wilson, who based the bulk of her campaign on the idea that Douglas County residents were without health leadership during the pandemic.
Thomas called the campaign dishonest says she is thankful Douglas County voters saw through it. Wilson lost to Thomas by double digits, 59 percent to 41 percent.
“We never left Tri-County,” Thomas said. “We sent them a letter saying we intended to withdraw on July 10, 2021. We always had a public health department.”
Tri-County Health oversees the public health policies of Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams counties. Douglas County Commissioners first began to disagree with Tri-County when the agency imposed a mask mandate earlier this year.
Thomas said the idea to leave the multi-county health agency is based on Douglas County’s need to ensure its citizens the best public health service to fit their needs, not the one-size-fits-all system currently in place.
“Public health is personal and unique,” Thomas said. “We have been named the second-healthiest county in the country, so our citizens are already making great decisions for themselves.”
The designation recently came from U.S. News & World Report. Although the county dropped from No. 1 last year, Thomas said the way the county has handled response to the coronavirus was figured into this year’s ranking and is testament to their response.
However, Wilson, continues to put the blame for the county’s COVID cases on the commissioners, despite Douglas County having the lowest infection rate (2 percent of its total population) in the state compared to counties equal or greater in size.
Wilson also credits herself for Douglas County remaining part of Tri-County, a claim Thomas called “a bold-faced lie.”
“The Douglas County commissioners formally rescinded their plan to leave Tri-County Health, in large part from pressure put on them by our campaign holding them accountable for this reckless decision,” Wilson wrote in a Tweet.
As for Douglas County running back to Tri-County, it actually just postponed its decision to leave after Tri-County gave up concessions that basically amount to the commissioners having control over any mandates inside the county.
Tri-County approached Douglas County about remaining with the organization until Dec. 31, 2022 on the agreement that Douglas commissioners would have an input during conversations about public health decisions while they were being made. They also now have the option of opting out of any order once it’s in place.
Thomas said she can see how Tri-County would give up the concessions it did in order to extend the time the agency needs to figure out the financing piece of Douglas County pulling away. Adams County has also hinted at forming its own health department. The departure of both counties would result in about a $7.5 million loss in revenue to the agency, which has a $44 million budget.
“It makes sense that Tri-County sees the handwriting on the wall,” Thomas said. “If they can keep operations together through the end of 2022, that’s a win-win for everyone involved.”
More than 70 percent of the counties in Colorado already have their own public health departments, Thomas said. So, Douglas County forming their own would simply be joining the majority. What that looks like is still unknown.
Only counties under 100,000 in population can act as their own health board — with Weld County the exception under its home rule status. But Thomas said they could form a five-member board that included two commissioners.
“It’s critically important for our constituents to know that the county commissioners were always responsible in this decision,” Thomas said. “They always had public health services by Tri-County Health, as hard as my opponent tried to spin it otherwise. Commissioners always considered the public health needs of their citizens.”