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Defunding PHD is off the table

Staff Writer | December 3, 2020 1:00 AM

Unlike their neighboring counterparts, the Kootenai County commissioners said Wednesday they have no plans to entertain the idea of defunding the Panhandle Health District.

On Tuesday, Bonner County commissioners discussed potentially slashing upwards of $250,000 if not all of the district's annual funding. Drafted by Commissioner Steve Bradshaw, the resolution was a direct response to the district's 60-day mask mandate that requires facial coverings in Idaho's five northernmost counties.

The conversation was put on hold because the county prosecutor's opinion was commissioners couldn't alter the district's funding until the next fiscal year. While the board was unable to take action, Commissioner Dan McDonald raised questions about the mandate's constitutionality from an unelected board.

Defunding the Panhandle Health District is entirely off the table for Kootenai County Commissioner Bill Brooks. However, he said he would be in favor of making the PHD board of health elected offices.

"I think the people serving on Panhandle Health should be elected to office," Brooks said. "People need to know that they have some control over these appointed boards that try to exercise dictatorial, totalitarian nonsense. I don't think they'd do those if they were up for election."

PHD's board of health is just one facet of the organization's responsibilities. PHD offers clinical services like cancer screening and dental care, community programs including suicide and substance misuse prevention, and environmental health resources.

Due to the region's reliance on those services, Brooks said the proponents of the Bonner County proposal lacked sufficient backing.

"The guy is a wackadoodle. Maybe he'd like us to stop inspecting restaurants and checking septic tanks," Brooks said. "They do those two things among many others, and if we defund them, who is going to do those things, him? I think the guy is looking for headlines, and I think he is a squirrel."

Since the district's initial mandate in June, residents and officials have debated its constitutional legitimacy. However, the proposed budget cuts could also raise other statutory concerns.

"There is a statutory requirement to fund Panhandle Health," Commissioner Chris Fillios said. "So the Bonner County commissioners in support of the initiative would have to change the structure, likely through the legislature."

Similarly to Brooks, Commissioner Leslie Duncan sees the larger issue as the lack of direct accountability board members have with the public.

“The Panhandle Health District Board would better serve our communities by informing the public and offering specific recommendations to elected officials in the various municipalities so that they may implement policies appropriate to their communities,” Duncan said.

Duncan said she has no opinion on the resolution, but she did support revisiting the abilities of the board of health in the future.

“A heavy-handed, one size fits all approach has shown a real risk of needlessly doing more harm than good,” Duncan said. “I hope to work with our legislators to amend our codes to put reasonable guidance and limits on health districts’ authority.”

In Fillios' opinion, taking away funding from the district based on the mask mandates is taking the issue too far.

"This is sheer lunacy. Just because a decision was made that you disagree with is not a reason to defund," he said. "They perform essential functions, and to defund them because of a disagreement over one question is patently absurd."

Failure or violation of the PHD ordinance could constitute a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both according to Idaho Code 56-1003(7)(c). Still, in Benewah County, much like Kootenai, Sheriff Dave Resser has decided against enforcing PHD's ordinance.

After speaking with the Benewah County prosecutor, Resser said the mandate was more of a rule than a law that absolves the sheriff's office from administering its provisions. Citing Title 18 of the U.S. Constitution Section 242, Resser contended that it could be potentially illegal for him to enforce the mandate by acting beyond the bounds of his lawful authority.

"I have a constitutional responsibility to all citizens, and as a sheriff, I don't take that lightly," Resser said. "We won't enforce it because it's not a law, and I can't enforce anything but a law."

Despite the lack of official law imposition, Resser said that he does suggest people wear a mask and practice all the precautions recommended by the Panhandle Health District.

"We're trying to educate the public on what is best," he said. "I think the public has a right to know what's going on and allow them to make their own choices."

Adding the defunding resolution to a meeting agenda would require the support of two commissioners, Fillios said. With both he and Brooks in clear opposition, the likelihood of that discussion in Kootenai County is slim to none.