At the April 6 board meeting of the Palm Drive Health Care District (PDHCD), attorney Bill Adams warned the board and a fractious, virtual community of board watchers that the health care district wouldn’t be able to meet the three-month dissolution deadline that it had outlined at its meeting in March.
Adams said that on March 17 — the day the county’s shelter-in-place order went into effect — Sonoma County’s Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax Collector Erick Roeser wrote an email to both Adams and PDHCD Director Alanna Brogan saying that, in light of the epidemic, the county was going to be unable to convene the work group that was scheduled to take over the business of the troubled health care district until fall.
“It pushes the dissolution timeline back approximately three months,” Adams said.
“I want to reconfirm that this is something the county said they have to do,” Brogan said, “This is not our choice.”
Ready, set, wait
The dissolution of the district has been a long-sought goal of district opponents, who this year took matters into their own hands and began circulating a petition to dissolve the district.
When the signatures began to add up, the district board responded by deciding to dissolve itself.
At first, it seemed a bit like a race — each side competing to see which would be the first to deliver their paperwork to LAFCO, the Local Agency Formation Commission which oversees the births and deaths of special taxation districts like a health district.
Then came the COVID-19 epidemic, and now both parties — like the rest of the world — seem frozen in aspic.
Jim Horn, one of the founders of the petition drive, said that the petition has more than 1,600 signatures — they need 2,400 signatures to force the dissolution — — but that signature gathering has slowed to a crawl since the shelter-in-place order went into effect.
For their part, representatives of the health district said they can’t hand off the ball to the county until there’s somebody on that end who’s willing to catch it.
A ball made of money — and debt
Now that the health district has sold the hospital, it basically does two things — collects around $3 million in parcel taxes from west county residents and uses most of that to pay off the district’s $28 million debt. With the money left over after debt payments, the district pays its staff (Brogan and her admin), its lawyers, and gives health care grants to various local nonprofits.
Just this month, Palm Drive Health Care District through its Gravenstein Health Action Chapter gave the city of Sebastopol $2,000 for face masks to help the city enforce the county health order about wearing masks in public places. It also gave West County Community Services two grants: $3,100 to provide lunches for the homeless in Sebastopol over the next month or two and $3,100 to help at-risk mothers of newborns with essentials like bottles, breast-feeding supplies and diapers.
It’s not that opponents of the district oppose the good work these grants support — one of the founders of the petition drive to dissolve the district, Alan Murakami, called them “laudable.” It’s just that Murakami and company don’t think that the money from the Measure W parcel tax, which was meant to support the hospital, should be used to fund random health-related projects.
In addition, Horn said, “The people are leading this effort for the district, the executive director and the legal staff, are basically getting paid each more than $10,000 a month, as long as the district goes on.”
“I think they’re trying to convince the county that this is a terribly complicated thing and so the county’s trying to delay things as well. I don’t really think the county has that option. I think this resolves; the county takes over. Period.”
Mark Bramfitt, the director of LAFCO, agrees.
“My perspective is they (the district) don't need very much for an application (to dissolve)” he said. “While it’s worthwhile to figure out how they transition everything, at the end of the day, everything gets transitioned to the county. So while I applaud them for doing that work in advance, I don't think all of that work is necessary in order to file an application for dissolution and to move that along.”
An elective operation
The other problem with pushing out the date for dissolution by three months is that three seats on the Palm Drive District Board — belonging to Eira Klich-Heartt, Gail Thomas and Randy Coffman — are up for election in November of this year. Although, the new timeline shows the district dissolving just a few days before that election, there’s no guarantee that the district and the county will be able to meet that deadline.
What this means is that these three candidates are looking at filing deadlines and filing fees, due in August, for positions that may or may not exist by November. Even worse, the district seems to be considering paying for an election for candidates who will serve just a few days if that.
Horn, a former board member, said none of this is necessary.
“The current board members terms extend into December,” Horn said. “And I believe it says in the bylaws that the directors serve until their replacements are seated. If there’s no election then there's no replacements, so they would serve until the district was dissolved.”
Horn is correct about the PDHCD bylaws. Article III, Section 2 reads as follows ‘The term of office of each elected board member shall be four (4) years or until the board member’s successor is elected and has qualified, except as otherwise provided by law in the event of a vacancy.’”
At this point, the Palm Drive Health Care District board is still discussing, not merely the pace of dissolution, but the necessity of spending potentially thousands of taxpayer dollars on the November election.