MONTESANO — County Commissioner Wes Cormier says the size of the proposed Grays Harbor Community Hospital District should start small and grow if there’s a demand.
He would set hospital boundaries to just the city limits of Aberdeen, Cosmopolis and Hoquiam.
The hospital and its supporters submitted a petition to put formation of a public district on the ballot. They want the district to include everything in the county west of Hospital District 1, which is based in Elma. It’s up to county commissioners to decide the boundary of the district. Cormier argued that it was “improper and inconvenient for citizens” to include the outlying areas, including the North Coast and South Beach or the Montesano area, saying that by starting with a “moderate-sized district,” the hospital district could grow naturally and propose to annex the other areas in the county in the years to come. Through the annexation process, residents could leverage their votes to ensure they get the services they deserve.
“It is unjust to have citizens not in a reasonable proximity to pay property taxes to this district,” Cormier said. “When a taxing district is established, it cannot be reduced. It can only expand.”
But Cormier’s motion Monday afternoon, following a fourth public hearing on the hospital district issue, was met with silence from fellow commissioners Frank Gordon and Herb Welch, who both decided to table the issue until Thursday morning.
Gordon has said he’s more in favor of a larger hospital district, and Welch, arguably the swing vote on the issue, told The Vidette Wednesday night that’s the way he’s leaning, too.
Welch said the folks at Summit Pacific Medical Center in Elma, and several top officials in Montesano had made a very good case for taking the areas of Brady, Satsop and Montesano out of Community Hospital’s boundaries. Summit Pacific sees those as “growth areas” and has proposed putting a potential clinic in Montesano in the next few years.
“But, if I did that, and left the North Beach area in the district, the folks out at Ocean Shores would hang me,” Welch said.
At the same time, Welch said he sees the argument that Community Hospital serves the entire county.
That leaves the question of boundaries and how many hospital district commissioners that will serve the potential hospital up in the air until Thursday. The county has until Friday to approve a resolution in order for the measure to get on the August ballot.
The county has hosted four public hearings on the issue this week as Community Hospital grapples with a growing debt and a budget in the red these past three years, mainly because the patient base is mostly low income without private insurance.
A morning meeting Wednesday drew about 40 people with a mixed reaction. Some thought the hospital district should be approved as is and others thought the district should mainly be in the Aberdeen area, not in the outlying areas of the county. An evening meeting on Wednesday drew about 70 people, although most of the speakers identified themselves as Community Hospital employees or board members, all imploring the county commissioners to keep the boundaries the way they are. Many wore “I (Heart) Grays Harbor Community Hospital” buttons.
“I’d like to say on behalf of the few of us here who don’t work for the hospital or have an employee pension on the line, thank you for letting me speak,” said Tom Frederiksen, a local blogger and columnist for The Vidette. “There won’t be anything cut. They are losing, roughly, $2 million. Coincidentally, there’s about a dozen people at the top of the hospital who are making $2 million between them. Now, I’m not a math wizard, but I think we could probably cut their salaries down just a little bit and not lose any services. This is a money grab in the Montesano and Ocean Shores areas.”
After that, Dr. Rob McCauley of Community Hospital noted that he wasn’t getting any pension, but the threat of cuts are real.
“I’m an anti-tax guy but we have to do what’s right,” McCauley told the commissioners. “… Without this, the hospital will be there. But I believe a different version will be there. And that will cost lives. The last gentleman said that it won’t cut services. I wish he could come and show me that. I serve on the board. It will cut services. Because when the bondholders come, things are going to change. The OB-GYN won’t be there. There won’t be 24-hour surgical coverage. That’s crazy.”
Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler bucked a recent trend of North Beach residents, who had asked for the area to be withdrawn. Instead, Dingler told the commissioners that she supported the hospital.
“I think we have a great hospital now and I think we need to keep that,” Dingler said. “The cost is relative to each of us and I think that’s fair. I am a proponent of keeping the hospital and doing what we can to make it as good as we can. … I think Ocean Shores needs this hospital as much as anyone in this county so I am very much pro-hospital.”
A difference of opinions came up between a former Montesano mayor and the current one.
Dick Stone, former mayor and current Montesano School Board member, urged the commissioners to keep Montesano in the boundary.
“I want to be part of the solution,” Stone said. “People in Montesano should step up … and not look for a free lunch. Summit Pacific is late to the party. … They ought to back away and let people talk about Grays Harbor Community Hospital at this point.”
But Montesano Mayor Ken Estes said his city should not be included and pledged to personally lead the campaign to annex the city into Summit Pacific’s exiting hospital district.
“I’m not averse to paying taxes,” Estes said, adding that East County should all stay together as one unit and there’s been a plan in place to have Montesano join the old hospital district for years.
Former PUD commissioner Truman Seely, who lives in Central Park, said when he retired from Weyerhaeuser, he decided to stay on the Harbor.
“My wife and I would not have chosen to retire in the community had we known the hospital might not be here,” Seely said.
Seely called on the commissioners to “give us the biggest base to maintain the level of service and reduce the possibility of freeriders,” those who would use the hospital, but not pay for its services.
Maryann Welch, the retired county public health director, says she currently sits on Grays Harbor Community Hospital’s board of directors.
“I feel very strongly that our hospital serves everyone,” Welch told the commissioners. “They don’t look at the ZIP code. … They run the hospital for the good of the whole, not just for pockets of the county.”
Aberdeen resident Allan Shores, who made an unsuccessful bid for county commissioner back in 2012, says the hospital administration has done a poor job of telling people exactly what would be cut should the hospital district not be approved.
“Are they too big to downsize?” Shores said. “No. I don’t think they are. We don’t need everything they provide at this day and age.”
County Commissioner Welch quizzed Shores if he had any specific ideas, “What would you get rid of that they’re doing now at the hospital?”
“I think we really need to have an idea of what each department costs,” Shores replied. “If you take the birthing center — 500 and some births and 70 percent is Medicaid; the hospital must be taking a huge loss on that alone. That’s an elective. If you eliminated that, maybe that’s a half million dollars or more a year. I don’t know. We really need to look at the whole picture.”
There has also been debate about how many hospital commissioners should be on the ballot. It could be as few as three or as many as seven.
Dingler said the commissioners should allow as many hospital commissioners as they could. That way each area of the county is represented.
“You serve best when you know who you’re serving,” Dingler said. “Having an opportunity to talk to people in your area before meetings and between meetings is a really good idea. I feel I serve my city best when I talk to the people who are interested in what we’re doing. Having at-large members … may not serve the greater interest of everyone.”
But Welch, the hospital board member, said that sometimes having too many hospital districts needed from specific areas may lead to more vacancies because people won’t want to fill the seats as often.