In a split vote, the Winona County Board denied a request from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) to include a health impact analysis (HIA) in the county’s comprehensive plan revision process. Concerns that the scope of the health study was too broad, that members recommended by county staff to sit on an HIA committee were skewed, that the MDH might cut funding if it did not like the conclusions reached, and that the time needed to create the HIA would delay the comprehensive planning process led a majority of board members to oppose the HIA proposal.
County staff described an HIA as a “policy tool,” a document that gives policy-makers information on the impact various policy choices might have on public health. Staff suggested that an HIA in Winona County might address the health impact of large-scale row cropping, local foods, services for the poor and elderly, mineral resource extraction, and water quality. The MDH request came with a $30,000 grant offer that would have required an in-kind match from the county.
“This is much too broad,” County Commissioner Marcia Ward said of the proposal’s scope. She added, “When I see the list [of committee member nominees] I’m a little concerned that it’s heavily academic, medical, and health, but there’re no landowners here.”
Commissioner Steve Jacob concurred, saying, “To see this committee already set up and asking for approval, before it came to the board to carry out wishes of constituency, that feels a little bit backward to me.”
County Administrator Duane Hebert responded that having proposals that “are set up ahead of time can take away from the grassroots component.”
Winona County Board Chair Wayne Valentine stated that the board needed to be responsive to its constituents and listen to the Comprehensive Plan Committee’s recommendation to deny the proposal. “When we talked about comp plan goals, we really wanted this to be citizen-driven. I’m concerned that if we reject this recommendation, what kind of message are we sending to the committee? We’re sending a message that maybe we’re not listening to them.”
Jacob also expressed concerns that the grant funding might be contingent on the HIA committee reaching the MDH’s preconceived policy recommendations. “The grantee won’t be paid for the work if the state deems it unsatisfactory?” he asked, reading the grant proposal contract. “Is there a preconceived outcome to all this, and if we don’t conform, they’ll pull our funding?”
Ward agreed that the contract language was “unnerving.”
Commissioner Jim Pomeroy voiced support for the proposal. “I didn’t see this as being harmful to any process,” he said of concerns about delaying the comprehensive planning process. The HIA would be useful whether as a part of the comprehensive plan or not, he said.
Commission Greg Olson echoed Pomeroy’s comments. “It would be a shortsighted of the board to reject this,” he said.
Jacob, Valentine, and Ward voted to reject the state proposal. Olson and Pomeroy dissented.
Ward stated that she was not necessarily opposed to any HIA, but did not think it should be part of the comprehensive plan. Perhaps the county could rework the arrangement with the MDH and come up with a more narrow proposal with a more balanced committee, she suggested.
The board voted unanimously to direct county staff to discuss reworking the grant offer with the MDH.