Big push by hospital to get on primary ballot

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Photo by Eric Jackson Grays Harbor Community Hospital CEO Tom Jensen, left, and hospital spokesman David Quigg turn in the petition to create a public hospital district Friday afternoon to Elections Supervisor Katy Moore. The county started signature verification this week.

MONTESANO — Hospital District boosters in Aberdeen are on track to getting on the August ballot — but barely, and only if the Grays Harbor County commissioners have relatively few questions and the public doesn’t turn out en masse to question the boundaries of the potential hospital district.

If there’s even the slightest hiccup in the process, the measure would still be on the November ballot.

The board of Grays Harbor Community Hospital waited until the governor had his signature on legislation to increase the hospital’s reimbursement rate before going to the public and deciding to become a hospital district. Had the hospital started the process months earlier, there wouldn’t be a feeling that everything had to be done so quickly.

The legislation mandates that the private, not-for-profit hospital must be a public hospital district in order to get the higher reimbursement rate.

Some residents in Ocean Shores and Montesano have questioned why their areas in the hospital district’s proposed boundaries. Hospital District boosters grabbed as much of the county as they could in their proposal.

“Grays Harbor Community Hospital wants to include Montesano and Brady in its new hospital tax district,” one Facebook forum states on March 29. “A lot of people use the Summit Pacific Medical Center in Elma, which is closer. If we are going to be in a hospital district and pay property taxes to support the hospital, would you prefer to be taxed for the hospital in Aberdeen or Elma?”

The majority of the dozens of responses that followed favored having Montesano join up with the Elma-based hospital district. Hospital officials at Summit Pacific Medical Center have previously said they would like Montesano annexed into their hospital district — which wouldn’t be possible if Montesano is already with the new Aberdeen-based hospital district.

State law prevents overlapping hospital districts or else the proposal might have included the entire county, Community Hospital spokesman David Quigg said. The existing Hospital District No. 1 include the cities of McCleary and Elma and the area in between.

Under the steering committee’s proposal, only the Oakville area wouldn’t be in a hospital district, Quigg said.

When County Auditor Vern Spatz met with hospital officials on March 6, he presented them a timeline to get on the November ballot. Hospital officials came back and decided they wanted to accelerate that timeline to get on the August ballot, instead.

Hospital CEO Tom Jensen and Quigg turned in about 3,150 signatures on Friday, surpassing their goal of collecting 2,000 signatures. Spatz said the signatures are in the process of being verified. He expected to be finished by the middle of this week. The hospital needed about 1,500 signatures to signed the petition, who must be a registered voter and live within the hospital district to count.

If the signatures meet the threshold, Spatz will certify the petition and pass it on to the county commissioners.

The commissioners will then publish the petition in The Vidette, the county’s legal newspaper, and hold a public hearing two weeks later.

A look at the calendar and the expected deadlines shows that the earliest the commissioners could hold a public hearing is Monday, May 5. To get on the ballot, they would need to approve the ballot measure by Friday, May 9.

State law calls for up to four public hearings, but to meet the hospital’s self-imposed deadline of getting on the August primary, all four would need to be done in a five-day time period, if the extra hearings are done at all.

And for those upset their communities are in the potential hospital district, the only way to really get out of the district is to ask the commissioners before it’s even on the ballot. A majority of voters would have to approve the hospital district measure. However, if voters in Montesano say “no,” but a majority of voters elsewhere in the proposed district approve the measure, Montesano would still be in the hospital district.

State law empowers the commissioners to change the boundaries if they find an area of the proposed boundaries “unjustly or improperly included,” according to the Revised Code of Washington.

County Commissioner Wes Cormier said he’s looking into those requirements as community members touch base with him on the issue behind the boundaries.

County Commissioner Frank Gordon says he’s been a bit surprised how quickly everything has come together here.

“They had a steering committee, but the hospital already had everything to go,” Gordon said. “The steering committee barely had to be used.”

At this point, there isn’t an organized effort against the public hospital district. But there remains a lot of unanswered questions as to the hospital’s debt level, its current budget and how much money they could reap from a potential property tax levy. There’s some talk of a levy that could be 50 cents per thousand, Quigg said.

For the Montesano area, that could mean an extra $125 property tax on the typical $225,000 home. Plus, a street taskforce in Montesano wants the city to go out for a bond in November to pay for extra street repairs. There could be negative backlash for two property tax increases on the same ballot. Montesano Mayor Ken Estes says he’s wondering how voters could react.

The East County hospital district collects $454,393 and has a levy of 50 cents per thousand, according to county Treasurer Ron Strabbing.