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Interim public health director departs as dissolution nears

Turnover at the public health department follows a ‘less inclusive’ transition than anticipated
San Juan Basin Public Health Interim Executive Director Tiffany Switzer announced Tuesday that she will leave the department on Oct. 3. (Courtesy of San Juan Basin Public Health)

For the second time in four months, the top spot at San Juan Basin Public Health is about to be vacant.

Interim Executive Director Tiffany Switzer informed staff members at the department Tuesday that she would be leaving the role on Oct. 3.

The Board of Health appointed Switzer to the director’s spot in early June after Liane Jollon, who held the role for nearly a decade, left at the end of May. She intends to stay in Durango and will begin a new role with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Switzer, who started at SJBPH in an entry-level role nine years ago, is among a loyal cadre of longtime department employees who have faced an uncertain future.

As SJBPH nears its Dec. 31 dissolution date, its employees have scrambled to find new homes at the county departments that will assume public health duties at midnight on that date.

“I’m one of several staff who are not seeing a place for them on the other side of this, which was one of my driving decisions to seek new employment,” Switzer said.

It is a tense moment for some officials in high-ranking positions at SJBPH. They hold a wealth of knowledge and must ensure the continued delivery of public health services even as the counties prepare to take over.

But some public health workers, such as Switzer, have come to the realization that they will not have a spot in the county department.

“San Juan Basin has really been my second home for the past nine years, so it’s bittersweet to leave,” she said. “But I am looking to continue my career in public health.”

“San Juan Basin has really been my second home for the past nine years, so it’s bittersweet to leave,” said Interim Executive Director Tiffany Switzer. (Courtesy of Tiffany Switzer)

Switzer was one of two finalists for the director spot at La Plata County Public Health. But when the other candidate pulled out at the eleventh hour, county commissioners pivoted and opted to continue the search, during which time it became clear that Switzer was no longer considered a top applicant.

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Shere Byrd, the president of the SJBPH board, said she does not know who will lead the department in its final months.

She said Switzer’s departure is not unexpected, noting that the transition has been “far less inclusive” than both she and the county had likely envisioned.

Megan Graham, the new spokeswoman for LPCPH, said four former SJBPH employees, including herself, are now working for the department. The county’s interim director is an outside consultant.

The county has extended six letters of intent to hire that take effect on or around Jan. 1.

Although Graham could not confirm that all six recipients are current SJBPH employees, county officials have previously said it was their intention to offer such letters to SJBPH employees who could not start sooner because of continuing duties at the existing department.

Graham also said LPCPH will post eight job openings and begin interviewing to fill nine positions beginning next week.

“We’re working hard to get these positions filled and take away some of the uncertainty facing people working in public health right now,” she said.

Switzer said the efforts have been appreciated, but noted that the transition has inevitably become a source of stress.

“San Juan Basin staff see that both counties are working hard to set up the health departments and staff are very happy to see positions being posted at a pretty decent cadence,” she said. “But, you know, we live in an expensive community. There’s a certain amount of unknowns and anxiety among staff until they get that offer letter.”

Upon Switzer’s departure, SJBPH will have 52.8 full-time equivalent employees, down from about 75 a year ago. The number of staff members fluctuated greatly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An outline of the LPCPH organization published in the LPCPH board’s Aug. 24 work session packet shows 42.5 FTE positions at the new department.

Brian Devine, SJBPH’s environmental health director and interim deputy director, is one of the six who will move over to the county in the new year. He will serve as the environmental health and communicable disease manager.

“We’re collaborating – those of us that have received letters of intent are getting to collaborate on the development of the new department in ways that we weren’t before,’’ he said. “ … Not only am I excited to continue the work that I’ve been doing and continue to build out services for the benefit of the community, it’s good that I’m getting to participate in various (other) ways.”

Brian Devine, San Juan Basin Public Health’s current interim deputy director, is among a current handful of employees who will start a new role with La Plata County Public Health in the new year. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Still, he and Switzer noted that the transition is one of the driving forces that has precipitated the exodus of some staff members, foisting increased responsibilities on the remaining employees.

“Everybody has had to step up and take on additional responsibilities,” Devine said. “I myself am supervising three additional programs that I wasn’t at the start of the year. And that’s true for just about everybody here.”

Until 11:59 p.m. Dec. 31, SJBPH remains responsible for managing outbreaks of communicable diseases, maintaining vital records and a host of other duties.

Employees are being compensated for the extra work they are doing and, in some cases, have been offered retention bonuses. The board approved the expenditure of $750,000 to $1.2 million for extra compensation, but given the departure of staff members, those expenditures are projected to reach only about $650,000.

Although the dissolution has introduced a certain level of stress, Devine said the current staff members remain dedicated to their work.

“Everybody here is stepping up in really admirable ways to continue to provide excellent service to the community,” he said. “This dissolution is not an excuse to take a back seat and say, ‘well, it’s going to be somebody else’s problem next year.’”


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