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What will Archuleta County do without San Jan Basin Public Health?

'We cannot fail at this,’ says Commissioner Warren Brown
La Plata County has begun to execute plans to establish its own health department. Archuleta County has to do the same, but is not as far along in the process. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

More than two months have passed since commissioners in Archuleta and La Plata counties voted to dissolve San Juan Basin Public Health, the department that has serviced the counties’ residents for 74 years. The department will cease to provide services at the end of 2023.

A month later, the La Plata Board commissioners were interviewing candidates to serve on a board of health that will govern La Plata County Public Health, which will assume responsibility for the county’s public health services at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2024. The BoCC named seven members to the board on Jan. 24.

It was not immediately clear after the Nov. 15 vote to dissolve whether Archuleta County would create its own department or seek to join its neighbors. The Silver Thread Public Health District services Hinsdale and Mineral counties, Archuleta’s neighbors to the north. After the vote, Archuleta County Attorney Todd Weaver said joining STPHD was one possibility.

The tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic led to a similar divorce in the Denver region; the Tri-County Health Department, which serviced Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties, shuttered its doors on Dec. 31. Under Title 25 of the Colorado statute, counties must run a health department or be incorporated into a multicounty public health district.

Now, Archuleta County Commissioner Warren Brown says the county will establish its own district, which will be called the Archuleta County Public Health Department.

“I believe it was unfortunate that the two counties decided to separate,” he said. “However, this is where we are. And I think this is our best opportunity to put a health department together that does reflect who Archuleta County is and what specifically our citizens need as far as the services – not only statutory services, but beyond that.”

Brown served as the liaison between the Archuleta commissioners and a “Health District Investigation Committee” formed in August 2021 to investigate the feasibility and ramifications of leaving SJBPH. The committee came to no specific conclusions but created an atmosphere around the stage upon which SJBPH’s demise ultimately played out.

La Plata County appears well-poised to have its health department operational by the new year. The county appropriated $940,000 in its 2023 budget for the department and now has a board of health that appears anxious to address the needs of county residents. The 2023 Archuleta County budget includes funding for SJBPH through the end of the year, but makes no mention of, nor allocates funds for its new health department.

This is not to say that the county will be entirely stranded. Under the intergovernmental agreement approved in November, the counties will split SJBPH’s assets according to their comparative size. Archuleta County will take ownership over the building in Pagosa Springs, two of the department’s eight vehicles, as well as a portion of any remaining cash.

Brown said he is well aware of the challenge that he and his fellow commissioners now face.

“This is not a venture that can fail – we cannot fail,” Brown said. “We are, in essence, going to get one opportunity. And from my perspective, I want us to use that opportunity well, and to do it right.”

Archuleta County has received 17 applications from residents hoping to serve on a transition committee that will make recommendations to the board, and commissioners will interview some of those applicants in coming weeks.

He also said that SJBPH and La Plata County leadership have both offered to share information and resources to assist the county.

“We’re working with them closely,” said La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton.

Liane Jollon, executive director of SJBPH, said she and her staff worked hard to ease the transition.

“We’ve created shared documents where we have shared all of the funding contracts, all of the resources and logistics that we and the staff need to deliver the programs,” she said. “We have made sure that all of that has been available to each county for months, and have spent time doing presentations to make sure that they understand what's in those documents that we’ve provided.”

Brown said that while finances are less of a concern given that county contributions comprise only 23% of SJBPH’s budget and the rest is grant-funded, the bigger concern is finding adequately experienced staff members to run the department.

“We stand a very good chance of finding adequate funding,” he said. “However, what worries me is the lack of experience that we have. You can’t buy experience. I think that’s going to be our greatest hurdle, is having that experience base to draw from on a day-to-day basis.”

Jollon said the current SJBPH staff is a ripe pool of talent that both counties could draw upon.

Now that the clock has begun to tick, Brown said Archuleta County is feeling the pressure. Even though the department has offered to provide information to Archuleta County, he said the benefit of La Plata County’s “close relationship” with SJBPH has helped facilitate the immediate initiation of the transition process.

“I don’t feel like we have any time to waste,” he said.


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