WC City Council Makes Controversial Decision in Public Health

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A screenshot of the city council meeting on February 23, 2021

In a 4 – 1 vote on February 23, 2021, the West Covina City Council voted to terminate the city’s contract with the LA County Department of Public Health, against residents wishes, stating that the county had failed the city of West Covina.

The vote comes after months of tension between the city council and the LACDPH, with city council members frustrated with the county’s regulations, alleging that it was hurting our businesses and that we as a city were not receiving enough support. This deliberation began in December of 2020 when COVID cases were surging and the city’s emergency medical services were at full capacity. And although city council members were confident enough in our city to support the creation of our own health department, it seemed that the residents held a majority of the concern.

Questions regarding costs and services did not seem to be answered, and if they were, only briefly so. Through social media, residents began a hard conversation. Facebook groups were frustrated and citizens held their own rally in front of city hall, demanding accountability from their city representatives. But even with the push back from residents, the council moved on, pushing the item forward.

“They [West Covina City Council] wanted to make the mark,” said Councilmember Brian Tabatabai, the sole vote against the public health department. “It’s a great headline, we’re in the news all over the place but it’s not really thinking of the residents of West Covina, it’s more, again, I think, as a politician.”

In this case, it’s a 60 million dollar public health department (keep in mind, 60 million is on the lower end of costs) that the city can’t seem to afford, and it’s completely possible that West Covina residents will still be paying taxes towards the county for services that they will not be receiving. Currently, West Covina pays a 1% property tax that goes towards the county’s general funds, residents fees would not change regardless of services provided by the county, and there is no guarantee that the WC Public Health Department will cost residents less to maintain.

When asked if the city could guarantee the same services as LACDPH without raising taxes on residents, Councilmember Tabatabai answered simply, “No, you look at the track record of the current council and the answer is no.”

During the March 16 city council meeting, one presentation suggested taking funds from the taxes paid to the county, a Tax Transfer Agreement, to lessen the city’s financial burden.

The county did not agree.

Concerned residents also brought up the fact that after West Covina was audited, the city was ranked 9th out of 450 cities in California in terms of worst fiscal health, scoring 39.1 out of 100.

West Covina has not been fiscally healthy for years, so much so that there was a period of time in 2019 where the city was afraid it would not be able to pay its own government workers.

Other concerns from the residents had to do with the services that would be provided by the city, would this health department be able to make up the services previously provided by LACDPH?

President of the WC School Board Eileen Miranda-Jimenez voiced her own concern for students at the ‘Residents United Against A West Covina Health Department’ Press Conference and Rally on March 16, organized by local action groups Change West Covina and SGV Progressive Action. She presented multiple pages of services provided by the LACDPH, a list of services that the city could not guarantee.

“All the services that the LACDPH does that we don’t even notice, the cities don’t want to do them because it would be way too difficult,” said Councilmember Tabatabai. “But once they realize impacts on school districts, that it takes care of birth and death certificates, it tracks mosquitoes, there’s just so much that public health does that we are not aware of, which is a good thing we’re not aware of because it means they’re doing their job.”

In a seemingly deliberate attempt to push this plan forward, the city council only held two public meetings regarding the situation, one of those meetings at 4 o’clock, on a Tuesday. To the resident’s surprise, not only was it during business hours but the meeting was only announced 24 hours beforehand. It was also that same meeting where the vote was taken. Two hours’ worth of public commentary from residents were almost immediately dismissed and many were upset with the lack of transparency and communication by the city council.

The city then opted to compare West Covina to the city of Vernon, which currently operates its own health department. However, in 2019, the population of Vernon was 110, and the population of West Covina was 106,589. Additionally, the only four cities in California that have their own health department created them in the late 1800 and early 1900s, with the exception of Vernon in 1986.

If West Covina does decide to go all-in for this health department, there is no turning back, and that is what residents fear the most.