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County sets public hearings for proposed hospital district

Steven M. Herppich | For The Vidette  Gov. Jay Inslee signs legislation last month to boost the payment for rural hospitals so long as they are also public hospital districts, prompting Grays Harbor Community Hospital to go to the voters.
Steven M. Herppich | For The Vidette Gov. Jay Inslee signs legislation last month to boost the payment for rural hospitals so long as they are also public hospital districts, prompting Grays Harbor Community Hospital to go to the voters.

MONTESANO — The public will get four chances to chime in about the boundaries of a proposed hospital district and whether it should stretch from Brady all the way through Aberdeen to the beaches.

Last week, the County Auditor’s Office certified the petition from Grays Harbor Community Hospital, issuing a “Certificate of Sufficiency” and finding that enough signatures had been verified on the petition for the issue to make it to the ballot.

At this point, the matter heads to the county commissioners. State law limits the power and ability of what the county commissioners can do. The commissioners are empowered to decide on the number of hospital district commissioners that will be on the ballot. The hospital has asked for five, although the county could decide on three or seven.

In addition, the commissioners are allowed to change the boundaries. The law is clear that the commissioners can’t stop the ballot measure.

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

County Commissioner Wes Cormier says he’s heard from constiuents in the Montesano area concerned about the boundaries and whether it should include Montesano. Several residents in Montesano say that the area should be part of the neighboring hospital district serving Summit Pacific Medical Center, instead.

At last week’s Montesano Chamber of Commerce meeting, Montesano Mayor Ken Estes asked about the hospital district issue. Summit Pacific CEO Renee Jensen told attendees that if they have a certain request on the boundaries, they should make their opinion known to the county commissioners.

A petition is circulating on the North Beach, as well, to encourage the commissioners to remove that area from the boundaries.

To make it on the August ballot, the county commissioners would need to approve the measure by May 9. Otherwise, it’ll end up on the November ballot.

Four public hearings have been set to take input on the measure for 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday, May 5, and 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 7. All hearings take place at the County Administration Building in the first floor commission chambers in Montesano.

County Commission Chairman Frank Gordon said that the county would have staff available to make boundary adjustments, if needed and if there’s support by the commissioners to do it, by the May 9 date to make it on the primary ballot.

Meantime, Commissioner Cormier said while his duty as a commissioner will have him ultimately voting to place the measure on the ballot, don’t see that as an endorsement. He says he personally won’t be supporting the measure.

Cormier says he doesn’t think turning dozens of private employees into public employees will ultimately help the county as a whole and he wonders if there would be better ways to help the hospital.

He says the hospital also needs to be more clear on its budget, the revenue a potential property tax increase would generate and how much more money the hospital will get from planned state Medicaid rate adjustments if voters approve a hospital district. Recent state legislation would increase the reimbursement rate the hospital receives if it becomes a public hospital district.

“I think it’s a false ultimatuum presented — that if the people don’t approve this that the hospital could close,” Cormier said. “I don’t have an alternative. But I think there could be other options presented. … The other thing I’m worried about is if the hospital is going to ask for people to pay property taxes because of the hospital district, they have yet to say, ‘This is our debt. This is our current budget.’ I think it’s their responsibility to sell that to the voters.”

There’s also a question of what exact properties would become public — would it be all of the hospital’s clinics, its East Campus, just the main campus? Publicly owned entites do not pay property taxes on their land and building.

“There are too many questions,” Cormier said.

Cormier said he hopes the hospital comes ready to answer those questions at the public hearings, as well as explain the boundaries a bit better.

“We can determine to change the boundaries if it’s unjust, inconvenient or improperly applied,” Cormier said.

Commissioner Herb Welch said he doesn’t think it makes sense for Ocean Shores to build its own hospital out on the North Beach and that citizens there should support Grays Harbor Community Hospital, instead.

“That’s an impossible pipe dream,” Welch said.

Welch said he hasn’t talked to residents in Montesano, but is eager to hear what people think.