There were plenty of surprises at the Palm Drive Health Care District Board meeting last night. The biggest surprise was that the two hot button issues that most of the public had shown up to hear about — the setting of the tax rate for next year and the fate of the Gravenstein Health Action Chapter — had been removed from the agenda during a 5-minute open session earlier that day, when no members of the public were present.
Absent those hot topics, the meeting consisted of a review of the dissolution timeline by Palm Drive Executive Director Alanna Brogan and the announcement by the district’s attorney Bill Adams — incorrect it turns out — that LAFCO had forgotten to send notices to the multiple state agencies that need to be notified whenever a health agency dissolves or reorganizes in any way. Adams said that LAFCO had also forgotten to notice these agencies during the two detachments — that was also incorrect, said a furious Mark Bramfitt, executive director of LAFCO, in a call with Sonoma West.
“That is completely erroneous information,” Bramfitt said. “We absolutely notified all four state agencies for both detachments. We have notified the four state agencies for the dissolution.”
The bad news is, although Bramfitt received the district’s application for dissolution on May 13, he didn’t notify the four state agencies until Friday, May 31, which started the clock on the 60-day period these agencies – the California Department of Health, the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development and two others — have to respond.
Unfortunately, the district is set to dissolve in just 30 days, a timeline that may now have to be rolled back.
Bramfitt noted that, legally, LAFCO has 90 days to respond to and act on an application for dissolution. Even if he’d notified the agencies within one day of receiving the application for dissolution, it would have been too late for the current timeline.
“I only got the application 14 days ago,” he said. “So I'm really agitated by what people are saying about our processing. We're processing this expeditiously, in my opinion.”
Longtime district opponent (and former district board member) Jim Horn doesn’t hold LAFCO at fault.
"I heard that the district threw Mark Bramfitt under the bus and ran over him a few times,” said Horn, who missed the last board meeting. “That's nonsense. The district took three and a half months after its February meeting before it finally completed an application to dissolve. That was about May 13 or 14. At that point, LAFCO had to notify four state agencies and give them 60 days to comment. Sixty days would put them past the July 1 LAFCO meeting. If the dissolution can't be finalized by the end of June, it's the district's fault for dragging this out.”
Board member Richard Power, who ran on a platform of dissolving the district, suggested that LAFCO and perhaps the members of the district board themselves contact the state health agencies in question and personally to explain to them the need for speed.
One of the reasons the district needed to dissolve by early July was to avoid having to participate in the November election, which would have cost the district $75,000 to $125,000. That no longer seems to be a danger.
“We've been in contact with the Registrar of Voters, Deva Proto, who is taking a kind of a simplistic view of the whole thing and said merely ‘Do you expect that in November there will be a district?’ and the answer that she received was ‘No, we expect there will not be a district.’ She said, ‘Well, then don't put anything on the ballot,’” said the district’s attorney Bill Adams.
Next year’s tax rate is still hanging in the balance
The question of how much district taxpayers will be asked to pay next year is a bit of a hot potato that’s being tossed back and forth between the district’s ad hoc committee on dissolution and the office of Erick Roeser, the Sonoma County auditor, controller, treasurer and tax collector, who will be taking over the district’s financial affairs once it dissolves.
Roeser asked the ad hoc committee to decide on a tax rate for next year. In the interest of paying off the debt sooner, the committee decided to ask all district tax payers, including those in detached areas who currently pay only $108 a year, to pay the full $155 that those still in the district pay. This decision elicited the threat of a lawsuit from Gary Harris, one of the people behind the detachment of the Russian River area. Roeser then released a letter, siding with those in the detached areas, and asked for a two-rate tax structure.
Power, who’s on the ad hoc committee, washed his hands of the matter.
“This district has entered into a contract with the third party that has determined the tax rate in the past,” he said. “So that's going to happen. It's not going to happen by the end of June I wouldn't think given the COVID situation. At some point, Erick Roeser is going to ask for the rate and we're just going to say ‘Look we don't know how to set the rate; we've ordered this report. Go with God. You'll get it at some point.’”
Does Gravenstein Health Action have a future?
It’s no secret among board supporters and board opponents that some members of the Palm Drive Health District Board would like to grant Gravenstein Health Action, its community health arm, a life after the death of the district.
As such those board members and their supporters in the community are looking for a way to grant Gravenstein Health Action several hundred thousand dollars in seed money on their way out the door. They are also looking for a local non-profit to adopt the organization.
Those plans were dealt a blow this week when Roeser sent a letter to executive director Alanna Brogan and board president Dennis Colthurst saying the following:
“Based on financial information received to-date, we have not been able to determine that parcel tax revenue, even at the full amount of $155/parcel, will be sufficient to pay bankruptcy debt, bond debt service payments and other obligations of district ... I have a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers and the county, and ask that your board not enter into any new discretionary contracts or obligations until my office has assurances that funds will be available to cover district obligations.”
He also promised to claw back any money the district granted to another organization should the need arise.
That should pretty much put a stake in the heart of future plans for Gravenstein Health Action, which many will cheer.
Frank Mayhew, one of the original 35 for Palm Drive, who gave money to save the hospital in the late nineties, spoke for many board opponents when he wrote the following letter to the board:
“Any funds the hospital receives from the parcel tax can only be used for the hospital directly. In the current case this would be to pay down debts and pay off all bankruptcy debts. If the board continues this illegal spending” — on varied public health projects — “there are those of us in the community that will take this case to the courts and file for an injunction against any further outside spending. We will ask the courts to make the board directors personally responsible for these funds.”
On the other hand, supporters of Gravenstein Health Action point out that the organization has operated as a major source of public health funding for Sebastopol and west county for the last several years. They note that throwing away a large pot of money for healthcare in the midst of the worst pandemic in 100 years may be something we will all come to regret.