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Bid to stop new hospital bond sale begins; new election planned

Linda Satchwell
Staff Writer
11/11/2009

    Quincy resident Skip Alexander will file a Notification of Intent to Circulate a Petition to the Plumas County Elections Office Nov. 16, and when he does, he’ll set in motion a process that, in effect, will allow the voters a second chance to have their say on the Plumas District Hospital bond issue.
    Alexander attended the recent PDH board meeting Nov. 3, along with 20 other community members. At that meeting, Alexander asked board members if they would make a commitment to cap the bond tax at $87.30, which was the estimated “highest tax rate that would be required to be levied to fund these bond issues,” according to the language on the Measure A Tax Rate Statement.
    John Kimmel told him, “No, we can’t do that.”
    “Well, then,” said Alexander, “it’s going to go where it’s going to go.”
    When asked what he meant, he answered, “It means, we start with a petition.”
    “Right now, that’s what we’re trying to find out is where people are,” said Kimmel.
    “Well,” countered Alexander, “you had the support of this community, undeniably, and all of a sudden, it went down the tubes.”
    “If the price of gas doubles, do we blame the guy at the Exxon?” asked board chairman Dr. Mark Satterfield.
    “You can afford what you can afford. That’s what it boils down to,” answered Alexander.
    “And, that’s what we’re going to find out. We’re going to find out how much people ... are with us or against us,” said Kimmel.
    “What’s the process going to be for you to determine whether people are with you or not?” asked Alexander.
    “We have to think about that,” said Kimmel.
    “We haven’t established that,” said another board member.
    “We haven’t established that,” echoed Kimmel.
    Board member Valerie Flanigan cautioned the public not to think their objections were not heard, but the board needed to “continue on with the plans that we have, because of timing issues and filing for approval.”     
    It was visibly awkward for the board, though, when Director of Facilities Dan Brandes went through the architectural drawing of the new hospital building in great detail and with characteristic enthusiasm.
    When he brought in a variety of mounted stone samples, differing in color and texture, which the board could chose from for the new building’s facade, Brandes finally picked up on the board’s discomfort and abruptly finished his presentation.
    During the early portion of the board meeting, community members voiced their frustration, dissatisfaction, concerns, ideas and alternatives. Through it all, the board members listened, were conciliatory, said they were researching, trying to establish the likely tax high, and wanted the community with them.
    While every board member said he or she was working to come up with a better understanding, they were short on specifics, particularly a tax high beyond which they wouldn’t go, or a way to determine the level of public support.
    They also didn’t set a date by which they could apprise the public of answers to these questions.
    Director Bill Elliot said, “There are variable factors that we have to evaluate and that’s what we have to do over the next 30–90 days, and maybe six months, before we make that final decision to go or no go.”     The problem, clearly, for the residents in attendance was that they wanted answers now, not further ambiguities.
    As attorney Robert Zernich put it, “If they want to know what people are thinking, when we rescind it (the bond measure) they’ll find out.”
    The hoped-for election to rescind the bond will “prohibit the board going forward,” said Zernich. “I don’t think they care ... not one (board member) said they would withhold selling the (next series of) bonds.”
    He felt the board was so set on moving ahead with its plans it was unable to step back and assess the situation clearly.
    “Everybody has a wish list,” he said. “I’d like a brand-new Mercedes Benz, but I’m realistic enough to know what I can spend and what I can’t.”
    Zernich suggested taking a look at the consulting firm PDH used. Many residents have admitted, some with great embarrassment, to voting for the measure; they say they didn’t realize what they were supporting.
    Tramutola, the consulting firm, provides strategy and campaign management services. Its senior staff, including Vice President Charles Heath, who worked on the PDH bond campaign, are seasoned political strategists.
    The company’s website, Tramutola.com, explains why PDH paid them $48,000 for their services: “Our clients come to us because they want to win. Everything we do is focused on that goal ... Using state-of-the-art demographic profiling, the Tramutola team will determine who will vote in your election and how many votes you will need to win.”
    Further, through well-designed polls, the firm creates a campaign that will “resonate with your targeted voters.” The firm also works with its clients to create the necessary grass roots support.
    The company said it has “helped pass more tax measures for hospitals and healthcare districts than any firm on the West Coast.”
    In creating political campaigns, the consultants balance hospitals’ needs with “the tax rate that voters will support,” determined through effective polling.
    One of its most effective strategies is direct mail. According to Tramutola’s website: “Voters/citizens have become more suspicious of slick or ‘cutsie’ mail. We often ‘under-design,’ to ensure our mail is read and believed by the people we are trying to reach.”
    Direct mail campaign samples on the website—created for other hospitals, sound familiar—they use the same rhetoric adopted by PDH, not only for the campaign, but also in repeated public discussions with residents once their tax bills arrive.     
    For Tahoe-Forest Hospital in Truckee, Tramutola created “a campaign strategy suited to the unique elements of this rural mountain community. The direct mail campaign emphasized the dramatic changes in medicine and technology since the original hospital facility was built 50 years ago.”
    Mailings also depicted the 50- mile-plus distance a patient would have to travel to reach the next nearest full-service hospital.”
    The direct mail campaign included the following language: “Our aging hospital ... Vote YES on C to upgrade Tahoe Forest Hospital and maintain quality healthcare in our community.”     
    The same urgency used in the Quincy campaign appears in the Tahoe-Forest and Alameda Hospital literature: “For victims of accidents, injuries and other medical emergencies, Tahoe Forest Hospital is the only local provider of life-saving emergency care. The next nearest emergency is 45 minutes away from our community. In the event of an emergency, that is simply too long to wait. Yes on C will ensure quality emergency medical care when you or your family need it most.”
    In Alameda, citizens were told: “If passed, Measure A would provide ongoing revenue to Alameda Hospital, ensuring Alameda residents continued access to emergency care. If Measure A fails, Alameda Hospital will close.”
    Zernich pointed out the language in the bond measure appeared innocuous, giving the voters the “best estimate of the tax rate at its low the first year, at ‘the average’ and at its high of $87.30 in fiscal year 2037–3838.”
    Zernich noted the district was more forthcoming, however, in its Resolution No. 09-02. The resolution, presented to the Board of Supervisors Sept. 15, as a formality, says the “general obligation bonds of the District” will be “payable from a levy of an unlimited ad valorem tax against all taxable property in the District.”
    If the measure had been put in the same clear language, would it have passed? That, according to Zernich and Alexander, is what will be determined when they take the issue to the voters once again.
    Alexander said he’s currently working on his petition statement. This week, he plans to run it by the other proponents who will sponsor the petition with him. He asked Zernich to help him because “he can get it done.”
    The elections office has prepared a sample outline for a new bond referendum to rescind the hospital bond measure.
    The Measure A ballot cost $16,604, so a mail ballot to rescind it would likely cost a similar amount, depending on printing, postage and the weight of the ballot, according to elections officials.
    One interesting question remains, however, and that is just what to call this election.
    According to Kathy Williams, county clerk-recorder, a referendum is used to rescind an initiative, not a bond. She has been in the elections office for 22 years and “there has never been a bond approved where people decided they wanted to change or reverse it.”
    Further, there is “nothing in the (elections) code that provides for this.”
    Williams said Zernich would have to figure out what to call the election. Zernich said he plans to ask County Counsel James Reichle.
    Williams said she’s asked election officials all over the state and no one has ever heard of this situation, so it’s possible Alexander, Zernich, Reichle and Plumas District Hospital may find themselves at the center of a precedent setting election.
    

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