Hospital directors and administrators try to curb criticism

Delaine Fragnoli
Managing Editor

    When Plumas District Hospital directors met in closed session Tuesday morning, Feb. 2, to discuss potential litigation, they anticipated being served papers at that evening’s public board meeting. But no such drama materialized. Instead, the 30 people in attendance heard what is becoming familiar rhetoric.
    Hospital directors and administrators continued their efforts to pacify critics of their bond measure by pledging to hold two community forums within 45 days. The district made good on that promise by announcing Friday it had scheduled two special board meetings to function as community forums.
    The first forum is slated for Wednesday, Feb. 24, 6-7:30 p.m. at the Plumas County Library, 445 Jackson St. The second forum is scheduled Tuesday, March 9, at the same time and place.
    The board also indicated its intent to form a committee, which would include members of the public, to work on a community survey. Both advocates and foes of the bond measure would be represented.
    “We want to let people know we’re serious about what we said last month,” said Chief Executive Officer Richard Hathaway.
    Directors also asked Facilities Director Dan Brandes to select some dates for community members to tour the hospital to see for themselves some of the problems with the 50-year-old building.
    Amid pleas of “can’t we all get along,” petitioners continued to call for a ballot measure and a cap of the hospital tax assessment.
    Petition leader Skip Alexander asked the board point blank: “Have you designated an election official yet?”
    “No, we have not,” replied board chairman Dr. Mark Satterfield.
    Dennis Clemens, another petitioner, and Chief Financial Officer John Nadone had a terse exchange about whether the district was meeting code requirements for accounting and auditing of the bond funds.
    A woman in the audience and Steve Tolen, the hospital’s safety officer, maintained some humor in their exchange.
    The woman: “Our community is crumbling. California is going bankrupt. Where is the money going to come from? We can’t afford a Cadillac.”
    Tolen: “We’re in a Hyundai.”
    He went on to explain the hospital has to do a “Statement of Conditions” in which it has to document what is right or wrong with the hospital and outline corrections for the deficiencies. “We’re to the point we have no plan of correction without a new building. We can’t pull off our certification again. We were lucky to last time.”
    An audience member turned the topic to property reassessments and declining values. “No one wants to sign a blank check for the next 30 years. I wouldn’t give my own son a blank check. We need to put the brakes on.”
    “We have,” said Satterfield, referring to the board’s decision last month not to issue a second set of bonds, worth $12.1 million.
    Supervisor Lori Simpson told the group she was concerned because “people who don’t normally complain are complaining.”
    As the public comment period continued, a frustrated Fred Thon, a board member, asked petitioner Robert Zernich, “Is there a bank in the sky you’re aware of?”
    “I don’t have a magic bank either,” retorted a woman from the audience.
    “You must have money for a helicopter then,” said Thon. He later apologized for losing his temper. “My pacemaker is working overtime.”
    Satterfield tried to turn the discussion in a more positive direction by mentioning a USDA loan the district was pursing.
    Later in the meeting Nadone said he had filled out a pre-application for the USDA Community Facilities Loan Program. He said he expected a reply letter by mid-February telling him whether the district’s hospital project was eligible or not.
    If eligible, the district would submit a full application. The process could take four to six months he said.
    In a later phone interview he explained that he was asking for funds to replace the $12.1 million in bonds that the district decided not to issue this month and the $4-$5 million that the hospital had always planned on financing itself (the gap between what the bonds—both the aborted ones and the $3.2 million already issued—would pay for and the $20-$21 million the project is estimated to cost).
    Nadone said he really had no idea if the district would be eligible, how much money might be available through the USDA program or what conditions might accompany the low-interest loan. He said current interest rates for the program were 4.5 percent.
    According to the “success stories” posted on the USDA website, the program has helped finance the construction or reconstruction of critical access hospitals in other rural communities. (PDH is a designated critical access hospital.) Guaranteed loan amounts for some of the projects were as much as $19 million.
    As the public comment period wound down, Alexander demanded, “Why can’t the board just declare a $50 cap (per $100,000 of assessed value) and put it to bed?”
    Director John Kimmel, a certified public accountant, responded later in the meeting. “If we put a cap on the assessment, we can’t sell the bonds. Nobody’s going to buy them. They’re just not marketable.”
    Kimmel also took the opportunity to respond to critics’ charges that the tax assessment could double or triple. “Once bonds are issued, the only way for the assessment to change is if the assessed value changes. For the rate to double, property values would have to fall in half. Or we would have to have zero percent growth for 30 years. That would be cataclysmic in itself.”
    “I guess it’s possible,” he said. “It’s just not probable.”

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