Douglas County commissioners vote to create a health department amid Tri-County rift

Speakers at meeting split over decision

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In a major step in Douglas County's long-simmering separation from the agency that has safeguarded its residents' health for 55 years, county commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to create a new health department.

The new department will have authority over Douglas County public health after commissioners appoint a board of health and that board has had its first meeting, according to the resolution passed at a special business meeting.

Tuesday's move is the latest chapter in a rift between Douglas County and the Tri-County Health Department that has grown steadily wider since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic early last year. 

The county's conservative leaders have often opposed Tri-County's COVID-safety mandates, as have many Douglas County residents. Last week, many students protested at county schools over mask-wearing requirements adopted in response to Tri-County rules.

Tri-County is the public health agency for Douglas as well as Adams and Arapahoe counties.

“This new public health department that we are going to build in Douglas County, I believe, is going to be a model that people across the country are going to look at to streamline their public health departments as well,” county Commissioner Lora Thomas said in the meeting.

Despite Tuesday's action, Douglas County plans to maintain ties with the multi-county health agency.

Having already paid for Tri-County's services  until the end of the year, the county plans to continue using those services but with its own board of health, commissioners said.

The commissioners have also expressed interest in contracting services from Tri-County beyond this year.

The commissioners now have 90 days to form a board of health. Earlier in the day, commissioners agreed on the members of a five-person board of health, including two of the county commissioners.

They plan to appoint the board members at a Sept. 14 meeting. 

The move to split from Tri-County finalizes a decision made by commissioners during a Sept. 1 work session. In that meeting, commissioners directed their staff to alert Tri-County that the county would be leaving the health department immediately. 

Douglas County commissioners voted to leave the health department just days after Tri-County’s Board of Health voted to no longer allow counties to opt out of public health orders, as Douglas County had done, and to impose an order requring the indoor wearing of masks as a COVID-safety measure for all  students and staff at schools within its three-county jurisdiction. It's a policy that the Douglas County School District has adopted despite the opposition of county leaders.

Douglas County commissioners signaled in July 2020 that they planned to exit Tri-County, then put that plan on hold when the agency agreed to let the county opt out of its COVID orders.

Tuesday, county Attorney Lance Ingalls said that because Tri-County had recently voted to rescind the opt-out option — a negotiated agreement between it and Douglas County — the earlier notification of withdrawal from the county was still intact, thereby satisfying a rule that counties give one year's notice of any  plan to leave.

In a letter to Douglas County dated Sept. 3, the attorney for Arapahoe County -- another Tri-County member -- warned that it may take legal action to challenge Douglas County's exit, which the letter said “is in violation” of the one-year advance notice requirement for leaving health departments in state law.

During Tuesday's meeting, the three Douglas County commissioners each spoke in support of the county forming its own health department.

“There will be no gaps. There will be continuity of services as it relates to public health,” Commissioner Abe Laydon said. “The difference for today's purposes is that you will now have local control over public health decision making.”

Thomas read aloud a letter from Douglas County’s state legislators supporting the decision. 

“When Tri-County Health violated the terms of the agreement, our commissioners responded courageously to defend the natural rights as well as the values of Douglas County residents,” according to the letter Thomas read. The letter was signed by Republican state representatives Kevin Van Winkle, Patrick Neville, Kim Ransom and Mark Baisley, she said. 

During public comment at the meeting, about half of the speakers spoke against the county forming its own health department and the other half voiced support for the decision.

Several of those who spoke against the departure from Tri-County expressed concerns about an increase in taxes as a result of the decision.

“If you were truly genuine in your conservative beliefs, you would provide both the economics and the choice of this decision to the people of Douglas County via a vote. If the people of the county want to leave, so be it, but it should be our choice, not yours,” said Chris Chandler, a Highlands Ranch resident. 

In comments before the health department motion was approved, commissioners responded to the concern about an increase in costs.

“I don’t think there’s an intent to raise taxes right now,” Commissioner George Teal said.

Thomas added that if a tax increase were necessary, the commissioners would have to get approval from the voters because of TABOR, Colorado's constitutional Taxpayer's Bill of Rights requiring a public vote on any new taxes.

Many who spoke in favor of the commissioners' decision focused on the COVID-19 restrictions enacted by public health departments over the last year and a half. 

“If you want to raise my tax dollars, however much you want to raise them, you do that, because my children matter more than any amount of money there is on this earth,“ said Brandi Bradley, a Littleton resident. 

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