By Linda Satchwell
At its March 11 board meeting, Plumas District Hospital's directors voted unanimously to "appoint the Plumas County Clerk as its Election Official to process the petition regarding the Tax Limitation Initiative, including, but not limited to, inspecting the voter signatures and, if proper, certification of such initiative petition."
When attorney Robert Zernich took the petition signatures to County Clerk, Kathy Williams, he learned she was authorized to count and certify petition signatures.
Richard Hathaway, PDH's chief executive officer, and Dr. Mark Satterfield, board president, said a second resolution would have to be adopted at a later board meeting to authorize the election itself once the initiative petition is certified.
Previously, when the PDH board, on advice of its counsel, refused to appoint an elections official, the petitioners brought a legal suit against the hospital. Now, according to Satterfield, negotiations are going in a positive direction, and he is confident attorneys for both sides will soon reach a workable agreement.
Part of the agreement involves assurances by the petitioners' counsel that the current $3.2 million in bonds won't be put at risk if the tax limitation initiative passes.
Though Satterfield and Hathaway said they didn't know exactly how the petitioners could guarantee the safety of the original bonds if the tax cap of $50 per $100,000 of assessed house value passed, Satterfield said the attorneys "are ironing that out; they're wrestling with how to do that legally ... how it can appear on the ballot but also protect the bond holders ... and they do think that can be done."
PDH's board and administration feel it is important to resolve issues with the petitioners without a costly and time-consuming court case that they "cannot win."
They also feel it is important at this juncture to understand whether or not the community wants to go ahead with the new hospital project, though given their choice, the hospital would have chosen a less expensive means of assessment, such as a community survey.
Satterfield and Hathaway made clear, as they have since they first began advocating for a new hospital, that they believe the hospital will close eventually if the tax limitation initiative passes.
"The voters of this district need to know that this proposed initiative will tie our hands financially and will not provide us the funding we need to make much-needed improvements to our hospital. Even though mandated seismic upgrades have been delayed by the state, we still need to replace our failing infrastructure.
"Our hospital needs to be brought up to 21st-century standards to attract and retain physicians and to ensure quality health care is available to all residents into the future," Satterfield said.
Tax cap proponents have said there will be time to either fix the existing structure or to raise the money to build in the future.
Hathaway added that a number of rural, critical access hospitals are facing the same problems as PDH, since so many of these rural districts had their hospitals were built initially with Hill-Burton funds in the 1950s.
No one thought about how these hospitals would survive 50 years on when they would need to rebuild and when no funding would be available.
Like PDH, most of these rural, critical access hospitals are doing well if they can buy or replace much-needed equipment. Some, like Alturas in Modoc County, are struggling to survive; they cannot look to the future.
Satterfield pointed out the petitioners are looking at the current situation while the hospital board is charged with looking toward the future. "I think the referendum people are looking to now, to their pocketbooks, and we're responsible for health care going forward 10, 20 years down the road. And, we feel we'd be neglecting our duty to the community to do anything that would prevent the project going forward."
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