Nearly a month has passed since Gallatin County and Belgrade signed a new interlocal health agreement, which creates a governing body to oversee the city-county health department and health board.
However, the agreement is still missing a key member: the city of Bozeman.
A new deal was needed to include Belgrade after growth in its population, and a new state law required the creation of a governing body.
The three governments found agreement on the composition of that body. But now questions have been raised about the legality of other parts of the agreement, which entity would enforce decisions and face the consequences, and what exactly the job of the board of health is.
The window for Bozeman to make a decision is fast-closing, too. The old agreement expires on July 1.
The city will discuss the interlocal agreement at a May 10 Bozeman City Commission meeting.
To add to the increasing pressure, there has been little communication between the county and the city of Bozeman on what the city is planning.
Bozeman Mayor Cyndy Andrus said that the city is taking its time to make sure that the agreement falls in line with state law, particularly when it comes to the duties of the Gallatin City-County Board of Health.
“We are doing our due diligence to make sure that everything in that agreement works as well as it can,” Andrus said.
Bozeman Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham said that the city has been behind in making a move on the agreement.
Initially, the main hurdle was creating a governing body that worked for the three members. The makeup of the governing body includes the three county commissioners and one member each from the Bozeman City Commission and Belgrade City Council.
But the city was not involved in writing the terms outlined in the agreement.
Cunningham shared Andrus’ concern about whether the document follows state law when it comes to the role of the board of health.
Who enforces rules and regulations, who enforces compliance and who can accept funding when it comes to the board of health are all things Cunningham said he is reviewing.
“I don’t know that you can look at the interlocal agreement and have a complete understanding of who is responsible for what at what point,” Cunningham said. “The stronger and more exact we can make this document the more durable it becomes.”
Gallatin County Commissioner Scott MacFarlane said that he and his fellow commissioners are confident that the county is complying with state law in the new agreement.
“Everything that we have in our interlocal is essentially crafted and informed by the county attorney’s office,” MacFarlane said.
On enforcing regulations, MacFarlane said that the county is still trying to understand it, and won’t know exactly what enforcement looks like until it is put into practice.
The governing body is meant to be used in emergency cases — like a pandemic — and won’t be tasked with approving or denying every decision made by the health board, he said.
Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said that the law that required a governing body be created to oversee some board of health decisions was meant to “remove as much authority as possible” from health boards in the state and give that to elected officials.
Matt Kelley, former Gallatin County Health Officer, has been raising concerns about the agreement. He said the changes made by the 2021 Legislature were limited, and shifted only some authority to the governing body. The changes proposed in the new agreement have added confusion to members of the health board over what their duties are.
Kelley, who is now CEO of the Montana Public Health institute, felt that the county was overreaching in its duties that were spelled out in the agreement. Some of those duties, like accepting money and spending it, are still the responsibility of the board of health, according to state law.
The new agreement indicated that function would be roughly the same but subject to county approval.
Becky Franks, chair of the Board of Health, said she’s unsure what her job is. She usually signs all of the contracts for the board to accept money, but said the ambiguity in the agreement makes that role unclear.
Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner said the county commission has always approved the health department’s budget.
“There has to be somebody that has final authority,” Skinner said. “There has to be some check and balance over that.”
Franks was also concerned about the lack of input that the health board had during negotiations for the new interlocal agreement.
Buck Taylor, the vice chair of the health board, agreed with Franks.
“It was more in an almost advisory capacity. It’s not like we have been at the table for a lot of these discussions,” Taylor said.
Elected officials are responsible for ironing out the agreement and creating a county health agency, not the health board, MacFarlane said.
“It seemed like there would exist some conflict in that if we were empowering the board of health to start defining how it would be re-formed,” MacFarlane said.