The Curry Health Network board voted unanimously Monday afternoon to place on the November ballot a measure asking voters in the district for a $10 million bond to build a new hospital in Gold Beach and make improvements to its facilities in Port Orford.
The measure would result in a property tax increase of 76 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation over a period of 20 years. The district generally extends from Pistol River north to Elk River and east to Agness.
The decision came after about an hour of discussion regarding the chances of the measure’s success, as there will be competing property tax questions on this fall’s ballot.
“Without a hospital, we will lose the retirement people,” said finance committee member Brian Grummon. “We will lose the young people. The keystone function in a community is having a hospital.”
The hospital board needs the money to replace a building that doesn’t meet code — and hasn’t for years, if not decades. Additionally, it would like to make improvements at its Port Orford clinic.
The bond would be used to secure a matching, low-interest loan from the federal government.
“Our plan is to replace the facility — period,” said CEO Andrew Bair. “We got the strategic plan done in the past five months, and part of that strategic plan is to replace the facility for this campus.”
He said the effort to get the measure on the ballot is not rushed as it might seem, as past boards have argued its merits for about 15 years. Additionally, he has received confirmation from county planning officials that a new building built at the same location would be safe from a tsunami.
Two other ballot measures will be competing with the hospital’s question in November. And County Commissioner David Brock Smith has oft noted that the more tax questions a voter faces, the more likely they are to vote against all of them.
Curry County commissioners will put on the Nov. 5 ballot a measure asking all county residents for a property tax increase of $1.35 per $1,000 assessed valuation to fund public safety. The current county tax rate is 59 cents, the second-lowest in the state. Without an increase, county officials say, the county will be out of funds next spring and likely have to rely on the state — funded by a tax on those who have a taxable income — to take over critical operations.
The City of Port Orford plans to ask its voters to renew the tax — and then some — that pays for its police services, to $1.90 per $1,000 assessed valuation. The current five-year assessment sunsets next year.
Something, the hospital board members agreed, will have to give.
“The people in Port Orford aren’t going to vote for $1.90 and $1.35,” said board member Marlyn Schafer during discussions on the advantages of a November or May 2014 ballot question. “I don’t like to be held hostage by other taxing districts. If none pass, they’ll all be back in May.”
The 60-year-old hospital is crumbling and is one winter storm away from losing a roof or other major component, Bair said. Its poor condition has also deterred efforts to attract new doctors to the area.
“We cannot afford to keep throwing money into lost causes,” Grummon said. “I feel bad it’s turned into a confrontation between other county functions trying to raise money, but we don’t have a choice. We have to have a hospital. Otherwise, we won’t have a community. We won’t have anything.”
He encouraged the board to consider pursuing smaller loans or grants more amenable to tax-averse voters to pay for the replacement of the hospital in stages.
The board enthusiastically agreed it shouldn’t be a problem to pay back the bond — possibly even earlier than expected — and turn a profit with a new facility.
“With a new hospital, we’ll get more doctors — which we definitely need,” Schaefer said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. We absolutely have to do this.”
“There is no reason we can’t make the cash to service our debt,” Grummon said. “If we don’t address this, we’ll have catastrophic things happen (to the building).”
Another hurdle the health network faces is how to gain the support of residents in Port Orford who have said they don’t trust the board.
The last time a hospital bond went to the vote, in 1998, only 33 percent of voters Port Orford cast votes in its favor. And that was in good economic times
“We certainly have lost a bit of relational capital with the people of Port Orford,” Bair admitted. “This is the environment in which we work — an environment we, in part, created. We have made business decisions with Port Orford that have hurt our relationship.”
One of those involved a woman suffering from abdominal pain. In the three days she had to wait to see a physician, her appendix burst. Patient numbers there have gone from “somewhere in the 30s to the teens,” Bair said.
It’s a challenge many businesses face, said Grummon, who has experience in management and employee relations.
“You talk to employees, and they’ve been lied to by management in the past; they have zero trust,” Grummon said. “No amount of talking is going to convince them otherwise. You have to start walking the walk. You don’t say anything you can’t follow up on or intend to do. No lying, cheating or stealing. Listen to them, understand them. You can’t make a plan down here (Gold Beach) and go up there. They have to have an active role in any decisions.”
The district, under Bair’s leadership, has provided the city with a nurse practitioner who is on call 24 hours a day and an emergency room staff.
“In every small town, every mistake you make and every mistake they think you make, you’re accountable,” said board chair John Spicer.
Another bone of contention is that the hospital district does not include Brookings — whose residents therefore don’t pay taxes toward the district — but the hospital network has built on Fifth Street an urgent care facility to accommodate patients who provide 60 percent of the district’s revenue, Bair said.
Based on assessed values of properties, if Brookings were to join the district, the proposed hospital district tax could be lowered to 24 cents per $1,000 over a 20-year period, noted Chief Operations Officer Ken Landau.
Talks regarding splitting the Gold Beach hospital’s 25-bed license to provide for two campuses are separate issues — and a needs assessment for an emergency room and hospital beds in Brookings will take about a year, Bair said.
“What I’m hearing (in the community) is that people don’t want to spend a dime in Brookings until we deal with the hospital here,” Bair said.
“They’re motivated to have a hospital,” said board member Gary Anderson. “We need to make an offer to Brookings to join our district, form one of their own or have a bake sale. In Port Orford, they don’t like supporting a district they don’t use that much when Brookings has one that is used, but they don’t pay into the tax base.”
The group said they realize educating the public is going to be key in the months leading to the ballot.
“We could lose,” said board member Deb Wilson, via conference call. “But it puts the word out to people; it educates people. We’re going to upset people no matter where we’re at, what we do.”
Yet the board seemed to think their measure might stand a better chance than others the voters will face in November.
“We’re trying to revitalize the whole community,” Landau said. “Throughout the country, health care and jobs trump everything. That’s what we’re offering.”