By Perry Smith and Tammy Murga
Santa Clarita Mayor Cameron Smyth said Monday he is considering asking city staff to look into the formation of a health department in Santa Clarita, citing a city need to “create greater autonomy for the future.”
Should the creation of a public health department ensue, Santa Clarita would join four other cities across California — Berkeley, Long Beach, Pasadena and Vernon — with their own departments.
Smyth said he planned to discuss Sept. 8 with City Council members how the city could look into the process of creating its own citywide health department, a la Long Beach and Pasadena.
“I think it’s worth researching what creating our own health department would entail,” Smyth said.
“What we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic is communities like Santa Clarita and others that have maintained a consistency of cases, a consistency of capacity availability, and yet we continue to be put under the same order as the rest of the county,” Smyth said, “when the data shows that Santa Clarita and others are in a different place than the county.”
Council members Laurene Weste and Marsha McLean said via phone interviews that while they agreed that cities in the north county have different coronavirus figures than the rest of Los Angeles County, they cautioned that the move would be very expensive.
“I’m very much in favor of exploring the idea, but we’re not going to jump into anything until we know exactly what the costs would be and if it is feasible,” said McLean. “Our city is very frugal with how we spend taxpayer dollars, so we have to be very careful.”
City officials did not immediately have information regarding potential costs as “(t)his hasn’t been brought to the council yet,” according to Communications Manager Carrie Lujan.
The cities of Palmdale and Long Beach, for example, though their demographics differ from that of Santa Clarita, adopted $100 million and $153 million budgets, respectively, for their health and human services departments for 2020. A city-operated health department for Los Angeles was also under consideration a few years ago but the county Board of Supervisors unanimously rejected the idea, citing that the move would have diminished health services and increased costs to taxpayers. A 2013 study by city administrative officer Miguel Santana estimated it would cost the city an estimated $261 million per year to run.
Considering “it’s really expensive and you would need a lot of experts,” Weste suggested possibly asking the county once again to grant Santa Clarita variance to reopen its economy at its own pace. In late May, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose 5th District includes the Santa Clarita Valley, heard from city officials and urged the state to allow for variances but California granted the greenlight to the county as a whole.
“Maybe we take another shot at segregating ourselves from the county,” said Weste. “Maybe there has to be more negotiation on this with the Board of Supervisors on how they’re approaching this. The governor has different counties in different categories, but we’re a subcommunity of this county and with different figures.”
Mayor Pro Tem Bill Miranda was unavailable for comment, and Bob Kellar said he had yet to hear about Smyth’s consideration.
Smyth said he understands the department might not be created in time to deal with the current situation. However, the COVID-19 pandemic was a reminder of not only why Santa Clarita was created in the first place — for more local control independent from the county — but also how being under such a broad umbrella was creating unfair challenges for countless groups.
“By creating our own health department, Santa Clarita would have a greater say around not only salons, restaurants and places of worship, all of which are impacted by a countywide order that may not apply to Santa Clarita based on our own numbers,” Smyth said. “I understand that this would take time and may not apply to our current situation, but it’s a reminder that Santa Clarita should investigate more ways to create greater autonomy for the future.”