A group of Sebastopol residents is planning to circulate a petition to dissolve the Palm Drive Health Care District.
On Thursday, Jan. 2, Jim Horn, Alan Murakami and Gayle Bergmann filed paperwork with Sonoma LAFCO (the Local Agency Formation Commission) giving the agency notice that they intend to start gathering signatures on a petition to dissolve the health care district.
If the district dissolves, the task of collecting parcel taxes and paying off the district’s debts will fall to the county. Landowners will have to continue paying their district parcel taxes until the district’s $28 million in bankruptcy and bond debt are paid off, which will take 10 to 15 years, according to Gail Thomas, Palm Drive Health Care District treasurer, Landowners in the district pay $155 a year, while those in the “detached” areas pay roughly $105.
Horn et al have six months to gather the 2,400 signatures needed (10% of registered voters in the district) to dissolve the district. After they have turned in their signatures, there is a short protest period where those opposed to the dissolution can gather signatures in opposition. They would need to get signatures equal to 25% of registered voters to get the question put before the voters in an election. If those opposed to dissolution get signatures equal to 50% of registered voters, the dissolution will be turned down by LAFCO without an election.
Has the health care district outlived its original purpose?
The Palm Drive Health Care District was created in 2000 to keep Palm Drive Hospital and its emergency room open to the public. This intention was reiterated in the language of two parcel tax measures, Measure G and Measure W, which voters approved to help keep the hospital afloat.
The language of Measure W is most germane, since it provides the main source of funding for the district. The Purpose section of the measure, which passed in 2004, reads as follows:
“The purpose for which the new parcel tax shall be imposed and levied is to raise revenue for the District to use in order to ensure the survival of Palm Drive Hospital and access to local emergency, acute care and other medical and physician services for District residents and visitors, and to provide for ongoing expenses, repair and improvements to equipment and technology. The primary purpose of the measure is to ensure that Palm Drive Hospital, with its Emergency Room serving approximately 10,000 patients yearly, can remain open. Due to the size and diversity of the West Sonoma County region, local access to quality health care is essential. The aging population, commuting trends and increased traffic congestion necessitates keeping Palm Drive Hospital open for the health and well being of West Sonoma County residents.
A secondary purpose of the measure is to enable the hospital to retain its nurses, physicians, and clinical staff. In addition, the hospital will be able to keep up with advances in medical treatment and technology.”
Those interested in dissolving the health care district say the case is clear: Now that the hospital has been sold to AAMG as a long-term acute care facility, opponents feel that the district no longer has any reason to exist, especially since it costs taxpayers between $300,000 to $500,000 in administrative salaries and legal and accounting fees, just to keep the district open.
“So much money has been going toward keeping the hospital going and now that it’s sold, there is no longer a reason for expending these taxpayer dollars to keep the district open,” said Murakami, a longtime Sebastopol resident. “It’s time to dissolve it.”
Murakami said he cheered on early efforts to save the hospital, but that over the years, he grew increasingly frustrated as different hospital management companies came and went (none of which could keep the hospital in the black) and the district lurched from one scheme to another — the worst being the fraudulent Durall drug-testing deal — to keep the hospital open.
“I voted for Measure W,” Murakami said. “I agreed that we needed a facility in case there was an emergency. But over time I think all the data was showing it was just not feasible economically. I’m a believer in our taxes going to good causes that help our populace, but I also feel that organizations that receive tax dollars have to be fiscally responsible.”
Murakami said that letting this district and its board continue to operate — and potentially to continue to borrow more money — is a waste of taxpayers’ money and an invitation to further fiscal difficulties.
Bergmann said she feels the same way. She’s particularly bothered by the fact that Measure W had no sunset clause. That $155 a year will be collected in perpetuity if the district is allowed pursue whatever health-related projects it sees fit.
“I don't see any other way to have a sunset on Measure W unless we dissolve the district,” she said.
She thinks that if district advocates want to deliver different kinds of health services now that the hospital has been sold they should put a new measure before the voters.
A broader mandate
District defenders, however, see wiggle room in the language of Measure W, particularly in the phrase “other medical and physician services.” Alana Brogan, executive director of the Palm Drive Health Care District, created a PowerPoint about new directions for the health district, highlighting this phrase. (To watch this PowerPoint, see the link in the sidebar for this article at Sonomawest.com.)
The Palm Drive Health Care District board asked the law firm, Hanson Bridgett, to render an opinion on whether the language of the Measure W would allow the board to pursue other health-related projects, now that it no longer owns the hospital. That opinion was recently received by the board, but it had not been released to the public as of press time.
Longtime board member Gail Thomas said she thinks there’s a future for the district in providing subsidized medical care to people within the district and for-pay services for people outside the district. She is a member of a district subcommittee looking at all the things the district might fund in the future with the roughly $200,000 a year it has left over after bond payments, bankruptcy debt payments and operational expenses. She said her committee has looked into things as varied as subsidizing longer hours for the urgent care and having a mobile health unit provide medical services for people in west county.
In addition to new directions, Thomas believes the district has an important oversight role to play to ensure that AAMG is upholding its end of the contract governing the sale of the hospital.
“My view is I'd rather have somebody overseeing all this and making sure it was going in the right direction and making sure the hospital was complying and so forth than to just dissolve the district,” she said.
“One of the things that we did do when we sold the hospital is we took back a note for over a million dollars. They have to keep a hospital with at least an urgent care or emergency room on the premises for 10 years. That’s part of our deal. And if they don’t, they have to pay the note,” which amounts to $1.3 million.
“My major message is I think there is a role for the district, but I think the community has to decide whether that’s a role they want to support and what it is exactly they would like,” Thomas said, noting that she hopes to put together some public meetings in February looking at new directions for the health care district.
A meeting about dissolving the district
In the meantime,the group behind the petition drive to dissolve the Palm Drive Health Care District is having two public information meetings on Wednesday, Jan. 15, one at 11 a.m. and another 7 p.m., at the Sebastopol Regional Library, 7140 Bodega Ave., Sebastopol. Jim Horn will be speaking, as will current board member Richard Power, who ran on a promise to dissolve the district once the hospital was sold.
They hope to have petitions in hand by then for people to sign. Murakami said he’s feeling optimistic about their chances of finally putting an end to the Palm Drive Health Care District.
“It’s time to end this,” he said. “I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.”