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Bonner County can’t defund health district until budget process despite commissioners’ disappointment in mask mandate

Despite a proposal last week from one Bonner County commissioner, the board will not cut funding to the Panhandle Health District over its recent mask mandate.

After a discussion with the county prosecutor, chairman Dan McDonald told the board Tuesday that it could not cut funding to the health district until the budget process, which is done in August.

Although no formal response was taken in Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners still discussed other action that could be done to show their disdain with what they called an “overreach” of power by the health district.

“Leave lawmaking to the legislators,” commissioner Steven Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw proposed removing funding last week. The commissioners approved $256,985 for the health district for the 2021 fiscal year, the same amount given since 2017. The district receives funding from the state, the five counties it serves, fees, grants and contracts with federal and state agencies.

Bradshaw’s proposal came after Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler said he would not enforce a mask mandate.

The Panhandle Health District Board of Health, which serves Kootenai, Benewah, Boundary, Shoshone and Bonner counties, passed a mask mandate Nov. 19 for the five-county district.

The district’s rising COVID-19 case counts have continued to increase this fall while hospitals are at or near capacity .

All counties in the district are in the red “substantial risk” category, meaning they meet the following: a seven-day rolling average of more than 30 cases per 100,000 people, more than 20% of COVID-19 tests that are positive and hospital capacity consistently at or above 100%.

Despite rising cases, a mask mandate brought controversy to North Idaho. McDonald called it the most “divisive” issue he’s seen. The Panhandle Health District’s discussions during the past several months were always met with anti-mask protests by people who thought wearing a mask should not be mandated.

All three commissioners said the health district overstepped with its mask mandate but disagreed on how to address it.

Idaho law gives district health boards broad authority to address public health emergencies. Local boards have the ability to “administer and enforce all state and district health laws, regulations and standards.” They are also tasked with doing “all things required for the preservation and protection of the public health and preventative health.”

The local public health board also has “the same authority, responsibility, powers and duties in relation to the right of quarantine within the public health district as does the state.” In the case of an emergency, an agency may act through an emergency proceeding in a situation involving “an immediate danger to the public health, safety or welfare requiring immediate agency.”

State law also makes it clear that it is unlawful to “willfully violate, disobey, or disregard the provisions of the public health laws,” and states that doing so is a misdemeanor.

Commissioner Jeff Connolly disagreed that cutting funding was the best way to proceed, calling it “an inaccurate bomb at best.”

Instead, Connolly said the county’s representative on the board should be one of the county commissioners. The county has two representatives on the board of health: Glen Bailey, a former county commissioner, and Allen Banks, who has served on the board since 1997.

Ideally, every member of the board would be a county commissioner, Connelly said.

Idaho does not have a requirement for the number of elected officials on the board of health, but in Washington, elected officials must make up the majority of the board. This rule has caused some questions from public health experts and others in the Inland Northwest who grew concerned with the makeup of public health boards after the firing of Spokane Regional Health District officer Dr. Bob Lutz. Many wanted to see more public health experts on the boards and fewer elected officials.

According to Idaho law, in districts with fewer than eight counties, such as the Panhandle Health District that has five, the board of health consists of seven members to be appointed by the boards of county commissioners within the district. For districts with more than eight counties, the boards of county commissioners may appoint eight or nine members.

The Panhandle Health District Board of Health is made up of seven members, including a Shoshone County commissioner, a Boundary County commissioner, two representatives from Kootenai County, two representatives from Bonner County and one representative from Benewah County.

Connelly said as an elected official he can be voted out, but members of the board who are not elected officials cannot be voted out by the people. The county commissioners appoint members to the board of health for a term of five years.

When that term is over, the commissioners may reappoint the same person or choose someone else.

“I just truly believe it should be one of the three of us,” Connelly said.

Bailey told the county commissioners while he did not agree with the board’s decision to mandate masks, he did not think cutting funding was the best approach. He added he understood the commissioners’ frustration, but that they should take a “measured response.”

Bailey said the health district performs other necessary services, such as improving environmental health, managing septic systems, maintaining day care centers and performing restaurant inspections.

“Totally terminating the funding to the Panhandle Health District is overkill,” he said.

Banks, another board of health member, also agreed the health district has gone beyond its power with the mask mandate, but he urged the commissioners to communicate with other boards of county commissioners about their concerns.

“I do think their wings need to be clipped,” Banks said, but did not offer specific solutions.

McDonald said he was more concerned with what the mask mandate has done to the community.

He also urged the community to take actions that they feel are best for their own health. People should not be chastised for their decision to wear a mask or not to wear a mask, he added.

“It’s your responsibility to protect your own health,” he said. “It’s not the rest of the public’s responsibility.”

Sandpoint city leaders issued a statement last week, encouraging residents and visitors to follow public health guidelines as it is “a matter of life or death for some of our must vulnerable community members.”

Other counties in the Panhandle Health District haven’t had similar discussions about cutting funding. In Kootenai County, Commissioner Bill Brooks called Bradshaw’s move to defund a “silly threat.”

“It’s a very shortsighted, dimwitted view that all we can do is cut funding and they’ll stop doing things we don’t like,” Brooks said.

Brooks, who works as the liaison between the county commissioners and the board of health, said he did not support a mandate as it is a “real gross overreach.”

He also agreed that the representatives to the board should be elected officials.

Brooks said if county commissioners do not like what is being done, they can replace their representatives on the board of health in June.

Brooks said no one should be threatening other bureaucratic agencies right now.

“I’m not really interested in theatrics right now,” Brooks said. “We have a major problem with COVID and we need to solve it.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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